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Democrats Divided on Debt

White House to Take the Lead as Reid’s Caucus Shies Away From Specifics

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is staying tight-lipped on the debt limit, urging his Conference to keep its options open and waiting to see what the White House puts on the table.

Senate Democrats won’t be putting much on the table when the first bipartisan debt panel meeting with Vice President Joseph Biden takes place today at Blair House.

That’s partly by design, partly by necessity.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appears to be eyeing the less-is-more strategy that he employed during the partisan brawl over spending that almost ended in a government shutdown this year. Just as he did then, the Nevada Democrat is keeping his own cards close to his vest, urging his Caucus to keep its options open and waiting to see what the White House puts on the table.

Democratic aides said there’s no upside to putting out a specific proposal at the start of the debt limit negotiations. That’s particularly true after Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said this week that they now have until about Aug. 2 to raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit and avoid a possible catastrophic default on the government’s obligations.

There’s also not much point in getting out ahead of the White House, Democrats said.

“Ultimately it’s the White House’s show,” one senior aide said.

Senate Democrats, however, will make it clear that while they want to cut the deficit, they will stand up for the party’s values, including protecting social safety-net programs for seniors, the aide said.

“You don’t need to come in with a document to have a plan,” the aide said.  

But even if Reid wanted to put a specific proposal on the table, his caucus is deeply divided over what to do, with perhaps a half-dozen approaches under consideration. Plus, the Majority Leader has already watched three in his caucus sign on to a Republican-backed spending cap, and he will have to contend with liberals worried about proposals that include deep spending cuts to their favorite programs.

“It’s a mess,” another Democratic aide said. 

Sen. Patty Murray acknowledged that Democrats don’t yet have a plan.

“I think there is the fact that we need to come to consensus, but on what it is yet, we’re not there,” the Washington state Democrat said.

Reid and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) have pointed to a debt trigger as a possible way to reach a deal, but they have stopped short of embracing a particular proposal. At a hearing Wednesday, Baucus warned that a trigger should include safeguards that don’t make future recessions worse by forcing deep budget cuts at the same time.

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