Uncertainty pervaded the Capitol on Wednesday, as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) tried to wrestle every last vote out of his caucus for his debt and deficit plan and the Senate bided its time awaiting that crucial House vote today.
After an explosion of House GOP infighting at a morning Conference meeting, Boehner spent the day with his whip team trying to convince his rank-and-file Members that defection from his bill would amount to a concession to Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has his own legislation ready to go, but the fate of the Boehner bill will determine Reid's next move.
All the while, the Dow Jones industrial average closed down nearly 200 points Wednesday afternoon, following news that both the House and Senate proposals fell short of their targeted savings goals. Staffers spent the day feverishly trying to rewrite the bills.
If Boehner's bill passes today, Reid will have to decide whether to try to vote it down symbolically or to amend it and send it back to the House for final passage. If Boehner falls short of the 217 votes needed to pass his plan, Senate Democrats will likely start the formal process of moving on their bill and hope it passes their chamber.
Either way, Congress is running out of time to raise the debt ceiling by Tuesday's crucial default deadline — and it was clear Wednesday that the clock is making lawmakers nervous.
"Magic things can happen here in Congress in a very short period of time under the right circumstances," Reid told reporters after conceding that he needed to act "very soon" to have enough time to get a bill to the president's desk.
Reid continues to insist the Boehner bill is "dead on arrival" in the Senate. He told reporters Wednesday: "Don't worry, it will be altered if it gets over here. ... It's fairly easy to do procedurally."
Reinforcing Reid's message, the entire 53-member Senate Democratic Conference, including two Independents who caucus with them, sent a letter to Boehner on Wednesday evening declaring they will vote down the House plan.
There is significant overlap in Reid's and Boehner's offerings, which aim to cut about $1 trillion in discretionary spending and establish a joint Member-only committee to find more savings by the end of 2011.
No matter the result of the House vote, it's likely either plan will be transformed to look a bit more like the other in order to get something acceptable to both parties. Leaders in both chambers have continued to talk, even as they attempt to keep a finger on the pulse of their own rank and file.
"The communications between the Majority Leader and both [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell [R-Ky.] and Boehner continue, but each of them has to go through a series of steps in the decision process before we can sit down and finally reach an agreement," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. He added, "I hope it's sooner rather than later."