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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.