Win McNamee/Getty Images
Vice President Biden arrives at the Capitol on Wednesday for a meeting with legislators to work on a framework for deficit reduction. At left is his chief of staff, Bruce Reed.
It's crunch time for a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Congressional negotiators, led by Vice President Biden, say they want to reach agreement by the end of next week, and they're meeting daily behind closed doors to get there.
But serious differences clearly remain over the austerity package Republicans have demanded in exchange for voting to raise the debt limit by Aug. 2.
To hear House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tell it, all is well in these closed-door sessions to strike a deal for raising the debt ceiling.
"I continue to remain optimistic that we can get some real savings, and as the speaker has laid out, we need trillions of dollars of savings in spending cuts, and to demonstrate to the American people that we're changing the system here," Cantor says.
Maryland House Democrat Chris Van Hollen has been negotiating in the same room at the Capitol as Cantor. During a break in Wednesday's session, he insisted any deal aimed at reducing massive deficits has to be about raising tax revenues, as well as cutting spending.
"I mean, you've got all sorts of tax earmarks, tax pork, and that has to be gotten rid of to contribute to the deficit reduction," Van Hollen says.
Such talk of taxes amounts to fighting words for congressional Republicans.
"This discussion, that Vice President Biden is leading, is not about taxes, it's about spending," says Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, the Senate Republicans' chief message man. "And no one in that meeting should get the idea that Senate Republicans are interested in new taxes."
Democrats have begun laying down their own markers for a debt-ceiling deal. Democrat Charles Schumer of New York says no deficit can be brought down if high unemployment persists.
"We have a message today: Put jobs first. Deficit reduction alone is not a cure for what ails our economy. We need to spur job creation as well — the debt-ceiling deal needs to deal with both," he says.
The competing demands and lines in the sand have some lawmakers worried that the Biden-led talks may not produce a deal in time to raise the debt ceiling. On the Senate floor, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker demanded to know what that group is really up to.
"All of us are being patient as they meet in private, sharing no details about what they're doing," Corker says. "I think it's time that they come forth to give us the status, as to where they are, so that if there's other routes that ought to be taken, people have the ability to do that."
Corker's not the only senator running out of patience. Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, also calls for an end to secrecy.
"For goodness' sakes," Durbin says, "the time is over for talking behind closed doors."
For the past year, Durbin has been involved in a separate bipartisan debt reduction group. He says it's time they showed what they've come up with.
"I really appeal to all my colleagues who believe that we should come forward with this Gang of Six — now down to Gang of Five — with our proposal, to let it be known. Come to the floor, talk to their colleagues. Let us break this logjam, which has stopped us from bringing these ideas forward," he says.
But Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who's in the group with Durbin, says not so fast.
"He and I have a disagreement about that. That's been part of the discussion, obviously, in our group. We don't have a deal yet, and until we have a deal, nothing's agreed to," Chambliss says.
The deadline for preventing a possible default is now six weeks away. If there is to be a deal to raise the debt ceiling, many lawmakers now feel it may take a direct intervention by President Obama, just as he did earlier this year to avoid a government shutdown.