Updated: 9:33 p.m.
Congressional Democratic leaders were mum Thursday after meeting with President Barack Obama, but “volcanic” intraparty sessions earlier in the day could indicate that the leaders were unhappy about a potential budget deal that doesn’t guarantee tax revenue changes.
Upon returning to the Capitol from the White House, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said he had no comment on the session with Obama, who reportedly is in discussions with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to cut a deal worth $3 trillion in savings over 10 years with no upfront tax code changes. When asked whether his silence reflected progress or frustration, the Illinois Democrat responded, “Possibly one or the other.”
A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said there would be no readout of the meeting, and David Krone, the chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), had no comment for reporters walking through the Capitol’s carriage entrance moments after the White House session concluded Thursday evening.
The silence stands in stark contrast to meetings with Obama over the past two weeks, when aides were eager to share details, exchanges and barbs soon after their bosses’ conversations had ended.
Senate Democrats were huddled for lunch Thursday with Jacob Lew, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, when the news broke of a possible deal between Obama and Boehner. The reports of the “grand bargain” started filtering into the Mansfield Room, just yards from the Senate chamber, and Senators began getting agitated, worried that Obama was poised to agree to sweeping entitlement cuts with only the “promise” of a deal on future tax code reform.
The contentious Conference meeting came hours before Reid, Pelosi, Durbin and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) huddled with Obama and his top brass at 5:30 p.m. Obama likely had to make a hard sell on whatever package was being discussed, but the more difficult task the president faced would be listening to the top Congressional Democrats relay the serious concerns of their rank and file.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), a 24-year veteran of the chamber, called Thursday’s biweekly party luncheon “volcanic,” and others said the session was one of the most unpleasant in 20 years.
“Many of us were volcanic,” Mikulski said about the reports of an Obama-Boehner deal with no revenues. “You can’t ask us to vote when we haven’t been part of the deal.”
The White House and Boehner were quick to push back on the reports that they were closing in on a deal. “The report that we are close to a deal is incorrect,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, while Boehner told talk radio host Rush Limbaugh that there is “no deal publicly, no deal privately; there is absolutely no deal.”
But the day’s events indicated that the “grand bargain” was back on the table after the Speaker previously walked away from a potential $4 trillion agreement, marking the most recent step in a process in which Democrats, especially in the Senate, have felt out of the loop.
Any package, grand or otherwise, will need the backing of Democrats, particularly in the Republican-controlled House, where many conservatives will vote “no” on any measure that raises the debt ceiling.
And all parties expressed reservations about forcing through an agreement that doesn’t yet have legislative language or a Congressional Budget Office score less than two weeks before an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling and avert government default.
Moreover, Senate Democrats had already gotten on board with a framework provided by Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that would raise the debt limit through the 2012 elections in a series of three votes and immediately extend the ceiling by $100 billion as soon as Obama puts in his first request to do so.
The whirlwind of reports that Obama was moving toward a different option, given that Senate leaders had been poised to begin the legislative process on the Reid-McConnell deal as early as this weekend, caught Democrats off-guard at best and incensed them at worst.
“The responsible thing to do in the Senate, for the country, is to not have default and to embrace a big deal in concept, with a specific time period to try to implement it, to not try to have to vote on it,” Sen. John Kerry told reporters after the luncheon. “The virtue of the Reid-McConnell package is that it is not a kick down the road. It is, in fact, a very specific and very tough process, which the Senate and Congress would have to complete the task of the big deal. So you get the best of both worlds.
“The best thing for us to do is to embrace the McConnell-Reid approach,” the Massachusetts Democrat added.
Durbin, who is also a member of the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of six” that is working on its own deficit reduction package, expressed reservations Thursday about the Senate’s ability to approve a deal like the one reportedly in the works between Obama and Boehner.
“It would have a very difficult time passing the Democratic Senate,” he said of any large package of spending cuts without revenues. “I’m looking for balance, and balance means revenues as well as spending cuts.”
Durbin, who said Lew assured the Democratic Senators that no such deal had been made, fell in line with Reid’s comments to reporters around the same time. The Nevada Democrat said his Conference would not support a deal without revenues and that he hoped the “president would stick with that.”
A Senate leadership aide contested the notion that Thursday’s meeting was unpleasant.
“It was lively,” the aide said, adding that much of the frustration was directed at Lew and not at other Members. “Democrats were united in their message to the White House that any deficit deal must include revenues.”
Although it was easy to gauge the temperature of Senate Democrats, who were in the same place when reports of the Obama deal surfaced, it’s less clear how House Democrats received the news.
House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen said he had not heard of a deal struck Thursday afternoon, but he added that there had been a “meeting of the minds” about doing something larger.
“There are a lot of people who were very skeptical about whether that would happen, but I think both sides remain focused on that even as discussions about Plan B” continue, the Maryland Democrat said.
House Democratic aides said that given the composition of their Caucus, if Senate Democrats were upset, it is likely their colleagues across the Capitol would be doubly so.
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.