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."
Amid the legislative chaos Wednesday, some Democrats renewed calls for President Barack Obama to raise the debt ceiling on his own — despite repeated protests from the White House that he lacks that authority.
Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (S.C.), the No. 3 member of House Democratic leadership, said the president should cite the 14th Amendment to declare the debt ceiling void. And Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said on the Senate floor that the president should consider ignoring the debt ceiling and would have valid grounds for doing so.
Those constitutional fallbacks aren't yet the focus of top Democratic leaders or the White House, who still hope some version of the Reid plan or an amalgam of the Reid proposal and the Boehner plan can avert a default crisis.
Both plans were being rewritten Wednesday after unfavorable scores from the Congressional Budget Office showed their savings were less than advertised.
Reid said he would add $200 billion in cuts, which he called "minor tweaks," to his plan to find the additional savings or spending cuts after a CBO analysis released Wednesday morning found that his bill fell $500 billion short of his $2.7 trillion target.
The Nevada Democrat added that he would find at least $2.4 trillion in spending cuts, enough for a $2.4 trillion increase in the debt ceiling so that his bill would meet Boehner's demand that any debt limit increase be coupled with an equal amount of deficit reduction. By doing so, Reid would also satisfy Obama's insistence that the debt ceiling be raised through the end of 2012.
The CBO found that Reid's plan would slice the deficit by $2.2 trillion over a decade — with more than half of that coming from assumptions that the U.S. will save money by winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The GOP has ridiculed using those presumed savings as a budget "gimmick." Democrats note that House Republicans used similar assumptions for the wars in the budget that they passed earlier this year.
Senators in both parties were getting impatient at the standoff and were casting about for solutions. Popular ideas included adding triggers to the Reid bill that could lead to a vote on the Senate's bipartisan "gang of six" plan — or a shorter-term extension that would keep the pressure on to make a decision on a larger package.
Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Senators were looking to add triggers to a final package that would marry the Reid and Boehner bills. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) suggested accelerating the process by requiring Congress to produce a massive $4 trillion deficit reduction plan by Sept. 30.
White House spokesman Jay Carney indicated Wednesday that what's lacking from the debate are not ideas or time, but courage. "There's plenty of time to get this done. What's lacking isn't time. ... We all know how we get there and the variety of ways to get there. What is required now is political will. And there's time. If people are willing to find it and use it, there's time to take action," Carney said.