Congress and President Obama are finding that a limited deal is no easier than a grand one.
It now appears that Republicans in the House could push forward with a proposal to cut the debt by $1.2 trillion now and raise the debt ceiling only enough to give the government the borrowing authority to spend for just a few months.
They would return to deeper cuts and a more significant hike in the borrowing limit later.
The Senate could put forward a divergent plan that would give Obama the $2.5 trillion hike in the debt ceiling he has sought, pairing it with equivalent spending cuts but no new revenues.
Neither plan would involve the kind of debt reduction or solution to vexing problems both sides once sought. The evolving proposals largely push off the hardest issues, perhaps handing them to a 12-member legislative commission charged with devising entitlement and tax code changes by Dec. 31.
Still, there is no agreement on how to move forward on the remaining issues.
If the House and Senate proceed as planned with competing proposals, neither would have a sure shot at passage in the originating chamber — and they would face a more serious chance of failure in the opposite.
“There’s a certain insanity in this,” said Steve Bell, a former Senate Republican aide who is now senior director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s economic policy project. “It seems like we’re now into musical chairs, of who’s going to be the last one without a chair at the end and get the blame. And when you’re into the machinations of who gets blamed, there’s an assumption that something blameworthy is going to occur.”
Timing is key
In the House, Republicans who took charge last year promising a new era of transparency have said they will not force votes on legislation that has been public for less than three days.
Unless they reverse themselves on this new rule, the earliest the House could pass a bill would be Wednesday.
A bill approved by the House that day would then take at least four to six days to make its way through the Senate.
That timeline would conceivably allow a bill to reach Obama by the deadline — but only if there were agreement in both chambers, and so far there is none.
A bill that starts in the Senate might not pass until Friday, setting up a final showdown vote in the House next weekend.
The key point of contention now appears to be one of timing that, until now, did not appear to be terribly troublesome — whether the debt ceiling should be raised enough that Congress would not have to vote on the issue again before the 2012 election.