“They’re making a grievous mistake if they think they can just present anything to us and assume that because we’re Democrats, we’ll go along with what the president has capitulated to,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told reporters.
With the high-stakes debt talks nearing the endgame, Washington’s leaders are caught in a struggle to pry lawmakers from their polarized power centers and toward the political middle.
A potentially historic accord is in the offing, but it would inflict pain across the ideological spectrum. Even if President Obama and the eight congressional negotiators agree to a grand bargain, it is increasingly apparent that Congress could fail to pass it.
“I could see a scenario where everybody agrees to a deal and when they finally put the deal on paper, the guys who agreed to the deal no longer believe it’s a deal,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in an interview. “I’m always optimistic. But here I’m pretty neutral.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who leads a bloc of liberals, was more stark in an interview: “If they can reach a deal, will it get support in either or both caucuses? That’s totally unknown.”
The contours of an agreement to raise the debt limit, which must occur before Aug. 2 or Treasury officials say the country will go into default, are only now coming into focus. It could result in up to $4 trillion in savings over the next decade by overhauling the tax code and tackling all the major drivers of federal spending, including the Pentagon budget and Medicare and Social Security.
Most Republicans say increasing taxes is off the table. Some prominent Republicans are open to eliminating corporate tax loopholes as long as overall rates are lowered and any deal does not result in a net revenue increase. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) called this the “sweet spot,” adding that “there is an understanding that we need to do both: reduce the spending and reform the tax code.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are adamant about not cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits. “We are not going to reduce the deficit or subsidize tax cuts for the rich on the backs of America’s seniors and working families,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Friday.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) sought to tamp down expectations. “It’s not like there’s some imminent deal,” he told reporters, at one point holding his arms far apart to show the gulf between the two sides. “This is a Rubik’s cube that we have not worked out yet.”
Assembling a majority in Congress is always difficult, with 435 representatives and 100 senators who have diverse constituencies and champion varied interests.