Congress Keeps Working As Debt Ceiling Deadline Nears

This could be the last day the United States is assured of its borrowing authority. Congress could forestall this crisis by raising the debt ceiling, as it has roughly a hundred times before. But the debt ceiling is tied to the same confrontation that's kept much of the federal government shut down.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In war and peace, through depressions and disasters, the United States has always paid its bills.

INSKEEP: Today we find out if Congress will vote to raise the debt ceiling so that continues, or whether we'll all try another path.

NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving has been following this story. Ron, good morning.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, let's just review here. The House tried yesterday to pass a measure to raise the debt ceiling, but Republicans could not agree on what they wanted to demand in return. Any chance of a breakthrough now in the Senate?

ELVING: Let's be optimistic and say this is one of those cases of it being darkest just before the dawn, although the dawn in this case may still be some ways off. Now that the House, as you say, seems to be throwing in the towel, we expect that the party leaders in the Senate will bring out a bill that they can get through their chamber. And then it will be take it or leave it in the House and the spotlight on that chamber will be pretty hot.

INSKEEP: Well, let me make sure I understand this, because it looks - 24 hours ago, Ron Elving - like the Senate had a compromise, a bipartisan compromise, the Republican and Democratic leaders were working on that. Then everything stopped because the House said: Wait, we want to do this, we want to run this process. Then they couldn't agree on their demands. Then they all went home. Now it goes back to the Senate, it's the same place it was a day ago. Is anything really different?

ELVING: We are back where we were about 24 hours ago, and that is because House Speaker John Boehner has only been counting the votes in his own party and tailoring his bill to get all of them. If he were to take the Senate measure to the House floor and let 200 Democrats vote as well, then the combination of those votes - and probably quite a few of the Republicans would be willing to take the bipartisan Senate deal - would be more than enough to pass the bill, probably easily.

INSKEEP: Let's make sure that we understand the numbers here. You need what? Is it 218 or 217 votes exactly?

ELVING: Two hundred and seventeen, given the number of people voting in the House right now.

INSKEEP: OK, so you need 217 in order to get a majority. If it's a bill that's acceptable to Democrats, they can deliver up to 200 votes and then you need that relatively small number of Republicans to get you over the top. Is that right?

ELVING: That's right. And I suspect that that number of Republicans would be considerably more than the minimum necessary. The key here is to bring something to the floor and allow Democrats to vote as well. But what John Boehner has been doing is holding all the meaningful votes basically in his head. And he wants to pass the bill just with Republican votes, so as to keep his people happy. That means 20 or 30 members of his party can deny him, in effect, the majority by not voting with him.

INSKEEP: Now, is that what happened yesterday? Because Boehner had crafted this bill that included additional concessions that he thought would make conservatives happy? But it's sounded like the conservatives were not at all happy.

ELVING: That's right. They weren't unhappy because there wasn't a big enough bite out of Obamacare. They are focused on that one big issue. They want it repealed or defunded or delayed or, in some sense, seriously wounded. And any bill that Boehner brings forward that does not accomplish that is going to fall short in the eyes of his hardcore group. And what they can do is that they can vote against the procedure that brings the bill to the floor, and essentially handcuff the speaker.

INSKEEP: OK. Now, Ron Elving, let's turn the focus back now on the Senate. The Senate leaders on the Republican and Democratic side, of course, are Mitch O'Connell and Harry Reid. They say a lot of harsh partisan things in public. But I note that they've actually pulled the country through a couple of crises before. They have said last night they are optimistic about a deal. And there is agreement that would make a minor change, it seems, to Obamacare and also give the Democrats some concession and move forward.

Is it your sense that they can pull this off, or at least they think they can pull it off?

ELVING: The suspense is still in the House, Steve. I think that Mitch and Harry have been to the rodeo enough times and been around with each other enough times, that they can bring something together that would get through the Senate. They know where their votes are. They know how serious the stakes are. I think most of the Senate has already come around although they have their own hardcore faction.

In the House however, we have a larger faction of people who are making it difficult for the speaker. And it's not clear that they'll be able to get past them unless they're willing, again, to bring the bill to the floor and take the votes of Democrats alongside Republicans in order to pass it.

INSKEEP: In just a couple of seconds, Ron Elving, we are talking out about action in the Senate. Is it possible that a filibuster could slow that down, or a long speech could slow that down past the deadline?

ELVING: It could delay it perhaps as much 24 hours. We don't see it being a longer delay than that.

INSKEEP: OK. Ron, thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving this morning.

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