Out-of-the-Loop Lawmakers Try to Sway WH Debt Talks

Posted July 9, 2011 at 1:16pm

The weekend leading up to a marathon meeting between Congressional leaders and the president Sunday night is quickly turning into a display of who can make the most noise.

Beginning with a secret meeting between President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last Sunday, momentum toward making a deal to cut trillions of dollars from the deficit while averting an Aug. 2 government default appears stronger than it has been since the budget talks led by Vice President Joseph Biden broke down last month, sources close to Congressional leaders say. Those same people also acknowledge that whatever bargain might be struck will be up to Boehner and Obama.

However, that reality has not stopped others from trying to influence a closed-door debate from the proverbial hallways. And the clashing voices do not appear to be helping shore up anyone’s place at the bargaining table.

Late Friday evening, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) leaked details of a budget he has been working on for months that would cut $4 trillion from the federal deficit — the same total Obama told the Congressional leaders in a Thursday White House meeting that he’d like to see in any deal. Obama had presented leaders with three options, a “small,” “medium” and “large” deficit reduction package, strongly opposing a smaller deal and preferring an agreement that would range from the “medium” $3 trillion to the “large” $4 trillion.

Just Thursday, aides said Conrad would hold off on unveiling his budget. He did not release his plan with the blessing of Senate Democratic leadership and did not inform House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) or Van Hollen’s staff beforehand, a courtesy usually extended. Conrad had presented his plan to Senate Democrats in a closed-door Caucus meeting Tuesday, but the other members of his party did not want to move forward with the budget until they had a better sense of where the Obama talks were, even though many were supportive of Conrad’s work.

Indeed, it seems Democrats, being from the party of the president but also having their own strong priorities when it comes to protecting entitlements, are having the most difficult time finding consensus.
Earlier this week, Obama floated a Social Security reform trial balloon to the media without giving an advanced warning to Congressional Democrats, specifically Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who has repeatedly gone on the record saying Social Security should not be touched.

“Right now there are two Senate Democrats in the room and negotiations on details have not begun,” said one Democratic aide, when asked if Senate Democrats have united on a position for Sunday night’s meeting.

Making matters more complicated, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi emerged from a meeting with the president Friday and dug in on her vow to protect entitlements. The California Democrat told reporters that Democrats “are as firm as ever on what I’ve been saying … no benefit cuts on Medicare and Social Security” and no using cost reforms for those programs to “pay for tax breaks for the richest Americans.”

As of Saturday morning, it was unclear whether there had been serious communication between the Pelosi and Reid camps, and the two historically have not had the best of working relationships.

Plus, Senate Democrats such as Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) have renewed their push for more jobs stimulus, like a payroll tax holiday, in any debt deal. Schumer pointed to Friday’s discouraging jobs numbers as the reason stimulus is needed.

And liberal stalwarts, such as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), warned Obama that their votes are not a given for any deal, especially one that takes on entitlements.

In a Friday interview with NPR, Whitehouse said, “It’s also possible that a compromise could fail and not get through the Senate because it doesn’t have enough Democrats on board. And I think the White House needs to be watchful of those concerns, so that we’re not all caught by surprise as this thing comes really to the brink, and suddenly, they present us with something that is unacceptable and haven’t bothered to sort out with us beforehand what’s acceptable and what is not in the course of their negotiations.”

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is slated to appear on Fox News Sunday just hours before an expected marathon session at the White House that could decide whether a deal can be forged in the next few weeks. Sources close to McConnell say he will lay out the Senate Republicans’ position for Sunday night’s meeting on the nationally televised program, and that his argument will center on the need for entitlement reform.

Of the four major caucuses at the table, it seems Senate Republicans have had the easiest time coalescing around a general position, and McConnell’s plan for Sunday’s scheduled television appearance appears to be evidence of that.

Republican aides point to a Thursday afternoon policy luncheon where Boehner briefed the Senate GOP Conference on the status of negotiations between him and the president as a strong indicator of the coordination happening across the Capitol between Republicans.

Leading into Thursday’s publicized “budget summit” at the White House, other quieter meetings — like the secret session between Boehner and Obama this past Sunday — have given both parties optimism for a solution as time runs out on a deal.

Overall, the constant conversations between Obama and Boehner, who must walk a fine line between satisfying the tea party element in his Conference and averting government default, have been productive. Sources close to leaders suggest the framework of a deal is coming into focus.

However, aides in both parties said staffers working this weekend are unlikely to present any proposed bargain to leaders when they meet on Sunday. Instead, staffers are merely compiling the lists of policy options lawmakers and the president might want to use to craft a deal.