The GOP-controlled House and the Democratic Senate — including the two candidates for the Montana Senate seat up for election in 2012 — remain at loggerheads over debt legislation required to avoid a first-ever default on U.S. financial obligations as lawmakers and the White House head into a pressure-packed weekend in search of compromise.
A week of extraordinary partisanship was capped by a power play by Senate Democrats, who killed a House-passed debt limit increase and budget-cutting bill Friday night less than two hours after it squeaked through the House. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., set up a test vote for the wee hours of Sunday morning to break a GOP filibuster.
Before then, however, the House was set to even the score by voting Saturday to reject an alternative measure by Reid even before the Senate has taken it up.
Denny Rehbeg, Montana’s Republican U.S. representative, issued a release before the Senate vote took place, calling the House bill a “real solution” that grants a debt limit increase in exchange for “responsible spending reform” including a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Ten years from now, I hope we can look back at today as the first day this country started making Washington accountable by ending the business as usual culture in Congress,” Rehberg said in the release. “Enough is enough. We don’t need a balanced approach, we need a balanced budget. Politicians in Washington won’t trim spending unless they are forced to do so.”
But Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, whom Rehberg is challenging in 2012, said in a release Friday that he would be supporting a bill from the Senate and blasted the House bill.
“Tonight the House voted for another irresponsible, short-term plan that only sets us up for another distracting budget debate in a matter of months. Their partisan plan is the worst of Washington — it cuts Medicare and Social Security for our seniors in order to protect tax loopholes for millionaires and corporations that ship jobs overseas,” Tester said in his release. “Montanans deserve better than that. Every weekend I’m home, Montana’s businesses tell me how important it is to have the certainty of a responsible, long-term solution. They tell me how important it is to preserve Medicare and Social Security and other initiatives like financial aid for higher education, which invest in our future.”
Rehberg cited a June 25 letter signed by 80 Montana legislators — all Republicans, including Havre’s Reps. Wendy Warburton and Kris Hansen, and Sen. Rowlie Hutton, whose resignation was official June 18 — calling for Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment.
“I couldn’t agree with them more. Time is running out,” Rehberg said. “The American public wants this crisis resolved, and so do I. This is the second bill I have supported in two weeks and now it’s time for the president and the Senate to bring their ideas to the table. Any final package needs to include real, common-sense spending reform that protects hard-working taxpayers, Social Security and Medicare.”
But Tester said the Senate bill is the one that does that.
“That’s why I’ll be voting for the Senate’s budget plan this weekend. The Senate plan — constructed with input from both sides of the aisle — removes the dangerous threat of default and provides long-term certainty to Montana’s small businesses, seniors and veterans,” Tester said. “And it does so with significant and responsible spending cuts, no tax increases, and no cuts to Social Security or Medicare.”
He added that some members of Congress seem to have “drawn a line in the sand” to further their own political careers.
“With no time left on the clock, it’s time to end the nonsense in Washington and get back to work dealing with the bigger issues facing our great state — like creating jobs and improving opportunities for all Montanans,” Tester said.
Democrats, Republicans and the White House, meanwhile, are expected to be deep in conversation in hopes of a potential compromise. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is likely to play a pivotal role.
“There is very little time,” President Barack Obama said today in his weekly radio and Internet address. He called for an end to political gamesmanship, saying “the time for compromise on behalf of the American people is now.”
The outcome of the weekend endgame was anything but clear as Democrats and Republicans remain at odds over how to force lawmakers to come up with additional budget savings later this year beyond the almost $1 trillion in agency budget cuts over the coming decade that they basically agree on.
After a brutal week on Wall Street — investors lost hundreds of billions of dollars as the markets lost ground every day — pressure is intense to produce an accord before the opening bell on Monday.
The House measure squeaked through on a 218-210 vote, with 22 Republicans joining united Democrats in opposing the GOP measure, which pairs an immediate $900 billion increase in U.S. borrowing authority along with $917 billion in spending cuts spread over the coming decade.
Friday's roll call came after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had been forced to call off a vote slated for Thursday in the face of tea party opposition to the measure. He added a provision requiring that a second, up to $1.6 trillion debt increase be conditioned on House and Senate passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, which would require an unrealistic two-thirds vote by each chamber to send it to the states for ratification.
Boehner's move only cemented Democratic opposition to the measure and complicated prospects for a weekend compromise that could clear both houses and win Obama's signature by next Tuesday's deadline. And by appeasing the tea party by adding the balanced-budget amendment poison pill, Boehner seemed to hand endgame leverage to Reid and Obama.
Boehner said the House bill — before the addition of the balanced-budget amendment — mirrored an agreement worked out with Reid last weekend.
“Now the bill before us still isn't perfect,” Boehner said as he closed debate. “It's imperfect because it reflects an honest and sincere effort to end this crisis by sending a bill over to the Senate that at one time was agreed to by the bipartisan leadership of the United States Senate.”
Still, as soon as the measure reached the Senate side of the Capitol, Senate Democrats scuttled the measure without so much as a debate on its merits. The vote was 59-41, with all Democrats, two independents and six Republicans joining in opposition.
Reid's alternative measure would raise the debt limit by up to $2.4 trillion, enough to meet a demand by Obama that the increase be sufficient so that Congress doesn't have to wrestle with it again until 2013.
Administration officials say that without legislation in place by the end of Tuesday, the Treasury will no longer be able to pay all its bills. The result could inflict significant damage on the economy, they add, causing interest rates to rise and financial markets to sink.
Executives from the country's biggest banks met with U.S. Treasury officials to discuss how debt auctions will be handled if Congress fails to raise the borrowing limit before Tuesday's deadline.
But White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration did not plan to provide the public with details Friday on how the government would prioritize payments.
The day's economic news wasn't very upbeat to begin with — an economy that grew at an annual rate of only 1.3 percent in the second quarter of the year.
At the White House, Obama cited the potential toll on the economy as he urged lawmakers to find a way out of gridlock.
He said that for all the partisanship, the two sides were not that far apart. Both agree on initial spending cuts to take effect in exchange for an increase in the debt limit, he said, as well as on a way to consider additional reductions in government benefit programs in the coming months.
“And if we need to put in place some kind of enforcement mechanism to hold us all accountable for making these reforms, I'll support that, too, if it's done in a smart and balanced way,” Obama said.