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Negotiations On Debt Crisis Run Aground, Again

Speaker of the House John Boehner (left) and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell speak at a news conference as the debt crisis goes unresolved on Capitol Hill on Saturday.
Speaker of the House John Boehner (left) and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell speak at a news conference as the debt crisis goes unresolved on Capitol Hill on Saturday.

Your plan is dead. No your plan is dead.

Those were the messages exchanged by the Senate and House over the past 24 hours, and the events of Saturday left the debt crisis no closer to resolution.

In fact, it appeared to be getting further away.

The House met in a rare Saturday session for no reason but to tell the Senate it had no interest in the solution that chamber has been considering since last night. On Friday night, the Senate began a series of procedural moves toward a plan of its own after voting, 59 to 41, to reject the one sent over by the House — a plan Speaker John Boehner had spent 72 hours jamming through his recalcitrant chamber.

On Saturday, the House voted on a hastily drafted bill based on what it believed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was pushing in the Senate. The House turned thumbs down on that bill, 246 to 173. So there.

House Republicans were clearly stung by the snub the Senate had given their own work, which took Speaker John Boehner three days of extraordinary maneuvering and last-minute rewrites to pass. Even when he did win a bare 218 majority of the 435 members, he had nary a single Democrat on board and 22 of his own party stalwarts said no.

On the Senate side, Boehner's handiwork was nixed by six conservative Republicans who stood with the Tea Party in saying no to raising the debt ceiling.

No one expected any of those six to help Reid and his 53 Democrats (and independents) reach the 60 votes they would need to stop the filibuster of the Democratic plan in the Senate. But Reid clearly hoped some of the other Republicans might come over just to find some kind of way forward.

That hope, too, was dashed on Saturday, when the Senate GOP delivered a letter signed by all but four of their number. The letter told Reid to forget about any help from 43 of the 47 Republicans in the chamber. The leader was at least two votes shy of the minimum to keep his own plan alive.

It should be noted that the plans being pushed by the two parties are not worlds apart. Neither has revenue increases of any kind. Both would cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion over 10 years and raise the debt ceiling by a roughly commensurate amount.

But the Republican plan also included a requirement that both House and Senate adopt an amendment to the Constitution requiring a balanced budget, a feat that would require two-thirds in both chambers. Absent such a feat, the debt ceiling would be reached again in January. The difficulty of passing a constitutional amendment opposed by a majority in the Senate makes it tantamount to a permanent debt ceiling that would be reached by the end of this calendar year.

So the negotiations, if they can be called that, have run aground yet again on an issue no one had expected to be part of the final deal — or even the later rounds of talks. President Obama said in his radio address Saturday that it was time for House Republicans to compromise, rather than continuing to widen the gap between the two sides. The Saturday vote on the House's notion of the Senate plan showed how well that idea was playing in the GOP ranks.

Tonight, Reid had hoped to hold a crucial cloture vote in the wee hours of Sunday to break the logjam and get close to actual consideration of his actual plan. He was ready to alter his plan to lure GOP votes. With that hope appearing to be vain, the need for a cloture vote may be moot. Or Reid may yet proceed with it.

Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi went to the White House at midafternoon on Saturday. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were to confer with the president later in the day.

With the prospect of default now just a few days away, most Americans are still averting their eyes from the astonishing spectacle in Washington. But that may not be possible much longer.

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