Debt Ceiling Talks Drag On

Another day, and still no deal on the debt ceiling crisis. On Saturday, the two sides — or the several sides — seemed to be talking to each other again. On Sunday morning leaders of the Senate began showing signs of movement on a bipartisan deal. But by early evening no deal had been announced. "It has gotten so quiet — too quiet, as they say in the movies," NPR's Don Gonyea, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "It seems like the White House is focused on the House today...they want to let [Speaker of the House John Boehner] do what he needs to do."

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GUY RAZ, host: From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

It's been another day of waiting for a solution to end the debt ceiling crisis gripping Washington. But now, it appears a deal may be inching closer. Here's Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN'S "STATE OF THE UNION")

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL: Now I think I can pretty confidently say that this debt ceiling increase will not - will avoid default, which is important for everybody in America to know. We're not going to have a default for the first time in our 235-year history.

RAZ: And at midday, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid was willing to go this far.

Senator HARRY REID: After speaking with Republican leader Mitch McConnell this morning, we are cautiously optimistic. There are a number of issues yet to be resolved, and we must understand that. There's no agreement that has been made. But we're optimistic that one can be reached. But we're not there yet.

RAZ: But as the hours roll by, we are still waiting. The Senate is in session, the House comes back tomorrow, and the negotiations, we are told, are continuing.

With us now are two NPR correspondents watching the proceedings. Don Gonyea is at the White House and David Welna near the Senate chamber at the Capitol.

Don, let me start with you. There has been a sense of expectation all day that at some point, the president would appear there in the Briefing Room at the White House and announce a deal. What has actually gone on at the White House today?

DON GONYEA: I can tell you that expectation has faded as the day has gone on. It has gotten so quiet, too quiet, as they say in the movies. You know there's a lot going on, but it is just not happening in public yet. They are very concerned about kind of getting ahead of things. David Plouffe, the president's top political adviser, you know, again echoed what we heard from Harry Reid, that it's close, but no deal yet.

Probably, the most significant bit of communication out of here came from the communications director Dan Pfeiffer, who tweeted: Despite all the reporting, no deal has been reached. There are still important issues to work out. A lot of bad info out there. So that's about it from here. We could see the president, though. It just depends.

RAZ: David, let me turn to you on Capitol Hill. The Senate came in at noon. There were some speeches and chatter, and then they took a vote on shutting off debate on Harry Reid's plan to raise the debt ceiling. What happened there?

DAVID WELNA: Well, as expected, Majority leader Reid's proposal to extend the government's borrowing authority until the year 2013 failed to get past the GOP filibuster. It fell about 10 votes short of the 60 needed to bring that measure up to an up or down vote. And several Democrats were among those voting to block it.

RAZ: Mm. That would seem to be bad news. It seemed to indicate that there is no movement at all.

WELNA: Well, in fact, it would have been bad news if nothing else were in the works to get Congress to raise the debt ceiling by Tuesday. But there's actually a pretty upbeat mood here, a dramatic change from the past few days, and it's all because of the strong indications that a bipartisan deal is being worked out and is getting closer to being agreed on, and that it's something that both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate could vote for.

RAZ: Don, does that mean that on some level, the question mark is neither the White House nor the Senate but really the House?

GONYEA: It seems like the White House is focusing on the House today, and that's why they're being so quiet. They want to let the speaker do what he needs to do without causing any distraction. Give him space. They're counting the votes on their own here. Certainly, they're doing the math, trying to figure out how Speaker Boehner sells this latest framework to Republicans who would not vote for their own speaker's plan last week. But they do sense that it has moved significantly and that he's got room to maneuver. But again, they're giving him space.

RAZ: David Welna on Capitol Hill, is that your sense of what's going on as well?

WELNA: Yeah. But I don't think it's a slam dunk that you'll have both parties entirely onboard with an agreement either in the House or the Senate because a lot of Democrats say this is a terrible time given the weak economic recovery to slash federal spending just to get the debt ceiling raised. And they say it's especially unfair because nobody, not even the richest, is being asked to pay any more taxes to bridge the budget gap. Republicans, at the same time, are wary of a deal that virtually ensures that the debt ceiling will be raised through the end of next year.

RAZ: OK. So the leaders from the Senate and possibly the House have been negotiating with the administration today. That presumably is going on. What is the package, as best we can tell now?

GONYEA: The numbers may be moving around a bit, certainly as these talks play out today, but a trillion dollars in cuts will be identified right away. Then over the next six months, a special congressional committee made up of Democrats and Republicans will ID another 1.8, again not immediate cuts, over the course of 10 years. But if that special committee can't reach an agreement, then the key to this kicks in. A failure to ID cuts would prompt across the board cuts, cuts that really neither Democrats nor Republicans would be particularly happy with. A lot of, you know, oxes would be gored.

What we're told, though, that those automatic cuts, if they do kick in, big programs like Social Security, Medicaid would not be included. But it's possible that, say, Medicare payments to some doctors and providers would be cut back.

WELNA: And, Guy, a really key part of this deal is that the second increase in the debt ceiling, which would have to come early next year, is not tied the way it was in the House Republicans plan to further deficit reduction. President Obama will be able to request probably a $1.4 trillion second increase in the debt ceiling. And Congress will likely disapprove that. He'll vote that disapproval. The veto would be upheld since the votes wouldn't be there to override his veto. But that is pretty much locked in.

RAZ: That last point, though, would seem to be a sticking point for Republicans, presumably the Tea Party Republicans.

WELNA: That's true. And, you know, this joint committee that's being set up would have these trigger mechanisms that would be met to ensure that whatever recommendations they do come up with would be enforced. And one of those possible triggers would be to cut defense spending, something that Republicans don't want to see. Cuts in Medicare or other entitlements could happen if Democrats don't get onboard. The triggers would go into effect even if the committee itself couldn't agree on this because it would be made up of six Democrats and six Republicans. So this is all meant to avoid a deadlock, and that's meant to be the selling point to get everybody onboard with this.

RAZ: That's David Welna on Capitol Hill and also Don Gonyea at the White House following this story for us. Gentlemen, thank you.

WELNA: A pleasure.

GONYEA: You're welcome.

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