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NPR's Congress Watchers Provide Debt-Ceiling Fight FAQ

As Congress and the White House continue to struggle to reach a deal that would prevent a U.S. default on its financial obligations in less than two weeks, persistent questions about what happens next continue to swirl.

We turned to NPR's Capitol Hill correspondents, David Welna in the Senate and Andrea Seabrook in the House, to get their perspective on everything from timing to President Obama's spending limit options if the stalemate continues.

If the real default deadline is August 2, why does a deal need to be in place by the end of this week?

Andrea: It takes quite a bit of time and energy to draft the actual legislative language that then leaders could bring to the floor. And, perhaps more importantly, everyone wants to see how the Congressional Budget Office is going to score the deal. In other words, before anyone signs their name to it, Congress would get from the CBO an independent, non-partisan assessment of what the language would actually do, how much it would cut, how much revenue it would raise. That takes time - even on a rush job like this.

DAVID: Moving a bill through the House is usually fairly simple. Generally it takes only a day to debate and vote on a bill in the House, although the Republicans currently in charge have required a 72 hour period before a vote for members to study the proposed legislation. If GOP leaders want to move a debt ceiling increase expeditiously, which is not a foregone conclusion, they could waive the 72-hour rule and hold a quick vote in a chamber where the majority holds almost all the cards.

The Senate is entirely a different matter. In that 100-member body, it takes at least a 60-vote supermajority to limit debate and move to a vote. So the GOP minority can stop anything with just 41 votes. And, because the chamber operates by unanimous consent, one senator alone can prevent the Senate from moving forward. If a senator objects, which is highly likely in this case, it can trigger 30 hours of debate before a preliminary vote is taken to allow the Senate to actually proceed to the bill. If that vote is successful, there is then a 30-hour waiting period before the bill itself can finally be taken up. That 60-hour debate-and-waiting period process? It can be triggered again if any senator objects to ending debate for a final vote. That's 120 hours of debate just to get to that vote.

So what would this mean for legislation raising the debt ceiling?

DAVID: Say the Senate takes up a debt ceiling deal at mid-day Saturday, and if the required two votes to proceed and the final vote were successful, the House may not get that bill until next Thursday. But the House is also likely to amend whatever the Senate passes. The amended legislation, if it passes the House, would then have to go back to the Senate. If the Senate does not amend it, once again it could take up to five days to get to final passage. That fifth day would be Tuesday, Aug. 2 - the last day the U.S. Treasury can fully pay its bills.

When/if the framework of a deal is agreed to, who will likely emerge as the most important players in negotiating the details of the spending cuts, and, potentially, the revenue side of the deal?

ANDREA: Once the deal is out there, the only people that matter in the House are the 218 needed to pass the measure. Deal-makers will go for the lowest hanging fruit – and ignore those who won't vote on it at all, or only under crazy conditions.

If the stalemate continues, can the president move, without Congress, to increase the nation's borrowing capacity?

ANDREA: The president has ruled out the option of going "the 14th Amendment route." [Section 4 of the 14th Amendment states, in part: The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.] There are quite a few Constitutional scholars (and former President Bill Clinton) who say he could go ahead and raise the debt limit himself. But the circus that would cause – lawsuits, challenges, bitter fighting between branches of government – could be as corrosive to the U.S. credit rating as actually defaulting. So pretty much no one thinks they're going to go there. The McConnell-Reid fall back plan, though entirely reviled by almost everyone, is more likely.

DAVID: The president does not have the Constitutional authority to raise the debt limit. That power is assigned by the Constitution to the Congress. It's all part of the checks and balances system between branches of government that was set up by the Constitution's drafters. If the president could raise the debt ceiling himself, he likely would have done it back in mid-May when the debt ceiling limit was reached. Since then, Treasury has been moving money around various accounts to keep the bills paid, but it exhausts its ability to do so August 2.

There are some who say President Obama should invoke the section 4 of the 14th Amendment. In effect, the amendment says Congress cannot allow the U.S. to default on its obligations. And if Congress won't act to prevent default, the reasoning goes that the president should. But it's never been done before — just as there's never before been a default.

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