Negotiators have spent three months mixing and matching potential spending cuts to accompany an increase in the debt ceiling, struggling to find the right combination that would overcome a filibuster in the Senate and to secure a majority in the unpredictable House. The trickiest issue has always been how to create an enforcement mechanism, or a trigger, to compel portions of the deal to be enacted in the future, and over the weekend Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) engaged in last-minute negotiations with Vice President Biden to produce a trigger that could lead to cuts in entitlement programs and defense spending.
“I would say we are both cautiously optimistic we will reach a conclusion soon,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Sunday at noon after speaking with McConnell.
Less than an hour later, however, during a procedural vote, a group of 15 Senate Democrats crowded around one of their leaders, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), demanding to know why the framework did not include any increased revenue through tax hikes on the wealthy or the closing of corporate loopholes. The group included the Democratic caucus’s most outspoken liberals, such as Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa), Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.) and Al Franken (Minn.).
Afterward, Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.), who was part of the huddle, said the group had “mixed” feelings toward the possible deal. “It’s not balanced, it doesn’t have revenues,” he said, disappointed that President Obama’s prior demand for “balance” was not assured. “There are a lot of people who are really withholding judgment.”
Levin said a potential deal-breaker was the trigger — which forces spending cuts across the board if a special committee cannot produce at least $1.2 trillion in cuts that win approval from the Congress. If the potential cuts to Medicare under this trigger include reductions in any benefits to the elderly, Levin said, “then you’re going to lose a lot of Democrats.”
By 5 p.m. Reid had announced his support for the plan and prepared to hold a caucus meeting to describe the package’s details. As long as the frustrations of Levin’s group do not turn into an open rebellion, most senators and top aides believe the Senate will be able to approve the massive legislation, possibly by Monday.
Even members of the Senate’s Tea Party Caucus have signaled that they would require only one 60-vote hurdle to overcome their filibuster efforts and then waive requirements for up to 30 additional hours of debate — a delay that, without acquiescence, would make it impossible to win approval in time for Tuesday’s deadline.