Tea party freshmen might have given House Republicans the majority last November, but now that negotiations to avert a government default are pressing against the clock, those same conservatives have boosted the leverage of the minority parties in both chambers.
The Capitol was in flux Wednesday as lawmakers struggled to find a way forward on any plan to raise the debt ceiling. The "gang of six" plan has reignited hopes for a "grand bargain," White House press secretary Jay Carney opened the door ever so slightly to a short-term deal, and the Senate began taking steps to move on a Plan B pushed jointly by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Even with so much in question, however, this much is clear: McConnell had huge sway in setting the pace for Congressional action as White House talks were breaking down last week, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will have a significant hand in delivering Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) the votes that he needs to pass any plan through a House where handfuls of tea party Republicans are unlikely to support any measure to raise the debt ceiling.
"Well, it's always been part of the Senate conversation because we need 60 votes. In the House, it's changed because we assume that whatever [happens] there will need Democratic votes, and that means Nancy and [House Minority Whip] Steny [Hoyer] are part of the conversation," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said as he exited the Capitol for a meeting at the White House.
Who is meeting with whom, and how often, reveals much about the vote calculus facing leaders, as well as the strange alliances being formed that were absent from April's negotiations to approve a spending bill to fund the government through the fall.
Democratic leaders from both chambers, as well as House Republicans, met with President Barack Obama in two separate sessions Wednesday afternoon. It was the second such GOP meeting at the White House in a week and the first time that Democrats had returned to the White House since negotiations hit an impasse last week.
On Friday, Pelosi and Boehner met privately in the Minority Leader's office. The two also met with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Hoyer on Wednesday, a level of cooperation between majority and minority House leaders that is somewhat rare.
Last Wednesday, Democratic leaders of both chambers huddled on the Senate side of the Capitol to hash out possible changes to the McConnell proposal — which would raise the debt ceiling in three increments through 2012, with the burden of doing so on the president — that would make it acceptable to House Democrats.
Pelosi, who also spoke with Obama on Tuesday, has been guarded in showing her hand, as have all the leaders this week. But sources with knowledge of a Caucus meeting Tuesday said the California Democrat expressed an openness to Boehner bringing Reid and McConnell's Plan B to the floor and having Democrats vote in favor of it, especially if the framework is approved in a "clean" vote and without $1.5 trillion in cuts being discussed. It is unclear whether Pelosi discussed this with Boehner in their Friday meeting, however.
The tentative plan in the Senate is to file cloture on the Reid-McConnell measure Sunday night — assuming the Republican Cut, Cap and Balance Act has been cleared off the floor by the weekend — which would begin the process of getting the legislation to the president's desk. Senate leadership sources are comfortable there will be enough votes in their chamber, but the math in the House is trickier. House Republican sources said their rank and file are hesitant to approve a measure that would give the president more power.
This is where Pelosi and Hoyer would come in.
"It's a balancing thing here. This was something she would say — 'If we can't get a grand bargain and the only way to avoid default is Reid-McConnell and it comes over to the House, Democrats could help pass it,'" said one House Democratic aide familiar with Tuesday's Caucus meeting and the message Pelosi sent to her Caucus.
The aide added that Pelosi is warm to the Reid proposal of a joint commission to explore further cuts in the long term, but that in the short term, "the more cuts House Republicans insist on, however, the less House Democrats you can guarantee on the vote."
Meanwhile, Carney opened the door to a short-term deal, only to walk it back later Wednesday, saying that any short-term extension that the president would support would be for "a few days" — a seemingly untenable position given the weeks it would take to get legislative language and a Congressional Budget Office score on any grand bargain.
"So what we mean by that is we would not support a short-term extension absent an agreement to a larger deal. That's not acceptable," Carney said. "Obviously, if both sides agree to something significant, we will support the measures needed to finalize the details of that."
Republicans talked Wednesday of how Carney left space for the possibility of passing a shorter-term deal worth the approximately $1.5 trillion reportedly found in talks between Vice President Joseph Biden and lawmakers last month, with a debt ceiling extension commensurate to the cuts.
In practice, this would achieve much the same result as the first step or so of McConnell's initial proposal, which calls for a series of three votes to raise the debt limit through the 2012 elections, but without the political cover. Still, if leaders think that such a move would be a down payment on a larger deal — language that has been used since May in viewing the deficit reduction debate — and the White House gives enough wiggle room, such a deal might appear on the menu for lawmakers seeking a solution with less than two weeks to approve one.
Pelosi, however, indicated to Boehner on Friday that she was unwilling to deal until she knew more about what cuts the GOP would pursue, according to one Democratic Member familiar with the talks.
"It's been characterized as more of 'show us your cuts.' The other side says they want to see where we'd cut, and we're saying we don't want to have cut discussions until there are revenues," the Member said.
That Pelosi continues to hammer this point has unified her Caucus at a crucial turning point, especially as the reception to the McConnell-Reid plan in her Caucus on Tuesday was mixed.
"She was testing the waters of her Caucus, and I think she was laying the groundwork for the necessity of such a vote, perhaps," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said. "I don't think that's the same as she embraced it and she was urging everyone to support it."
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) added, "She has much more leverage in this because I think they recognize they don't have enough votes on the other side of the aisle."