You know the dizzying array of debt talk drama has gone beyond the state of ridiculous when an announcement from Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) about striking a deal with President Obama is his idea of a joke.
Boehner began a conference meeting Friday morning by deadpanning that Republicans, the White House and Democrats had reached a deal, according to a lawmaker in the room. The response from his conference was nervous silence before Boehner eased the tension by letting them know he was only joking.
The Speaker told GOP lawmakers he would work all weekend on the deal and would hold another conference-wide meeting Monday for an update on progress with a vote expected on a debt-related deal as early as Wednesday. There was no discussion of any other alternative options or working components of a potential deal, Republican sources said.
The talking points for the GOP rank-and-file was clear: insist that the Senate should pass their own version of Cut, Cap and Balance Bill — a balanced budget amendment that includes a debt-ceiling increase— and send an alternative back to the House — a basic “put up or shut up” attitude.
“The message was: We’ve done our jobs, we’ve passed our [balanced budget bill] with a debt-ceiling increase,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). “If Democrats don’t like it, they can put forward their own solution.”
To many Republicans in the room this was welcome news. The House passed their pie-in-the-sky solution, called the Cut, Cap and Balance Bill, earlier this week and even though the Senate’s Democratic leadership promptly stopped it dead in its tracks, the Republicans wanted at least one weekend to go home to sing its praises and lay the blame for the lack of progress at the Democrats’ feet.
“When is Harry Reid going to put forward his ideas?” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) asked reporters Friday. “Where are his ideas?”
Flake said he didn’t expect any major breakthroughs over the weekend even if Republicans were getting close to a deal with Democrats because the GOP leaders would need their conference to buy-in and everyone was headed to their home districts for the weekend.
And if Flake, who is running for Senate, was worried that time was running out before an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling, he didn’t show it.
Rep. Tom Price (R-TX), a prominent fiscal conservative, also seemed at ease with heading home while the default deadline loomed.
“We still have 11 days,” Price said.
Price also said the President isn’t being honest about the notion of defaulting because the government will always be able to pay the 10 percent interest on the debt.
“My concern is the President will be in charge of the decisions about where to make the cuts and he’s scaring seniors by saying they might not get their social security checks, etc,” he said.
Regardless of the “deal or no deal” debate, when asked about the specifics of plans described in the press, Republicans were cautious about any agreement to re-open the debate about tax revenues after the 2012 elections when both the GOP may be in a better mood to compromise.
“I would have real concerns about that — because that has been the model in the past — that’s the business as usual approach,” Price said.
So far, Flake said, from the details he has heard, Republicans still want to see more cuts to entitlement programs.
Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ), however, told TPM that Democrats would not accept any deal that involves cuts to Medicare not being invested back into the program’s trust fund.
“Any savings for Medicare must go back to the trust funds [rather than using it for other purposes],” he said.
Democrats are also fearful, Andrews said, because as negotiations now stand there are “no guaranteed revenue” increases in the loose plan under discussion.
“In our view, it is not about some accounting gimmick,” he said in reference to the decision to punt any tax increases and reform to 2013. “This is about shared sacrifice—that’s pretty non-negotiable for us.”
He said the deal being discussed in the Democratic caucus was not definitely $3 trillion in cuts to $1 trillion in revenue raisers, as media reports have indicated, but the shape of the deal has a three to one ratio of cuts to revenue raisers.
“It could be smaller” than $3 trillion overall, he said.
Andrews also said Democrats would not be satisfied with passing a bare bones debt-ceiling increase without achieving any significant deficit reduction.
“I do think there is an understanding [within the caucus] that this deal has to convince the markets that we’re going to do something serious about deficits,” he said.