WASHINGTON - Passions are running high in Washington over what once was a routine Congressional vote to increase the nation's debt limit. There's a crisis atmosphere in the hallways surrounding both the Senate and House chambers. Cable news channels are running countdown clocks to Aug. 2, when the Treasury Department runs out of borrowing authority.
Congressional offices are reporting much higher than usual levels of phone calls and emails from constituents after Monday night's speech by President Obama, in which he urged Americans to contact their lawmakers and ask for an increase in the debt limit. DFL Rep. Betty McCollum said her office had recorded over 600 calls on Tuesday, well above average.
But at this stage in the debate, there are just two proposals left for how to extend the debt ceiling by at least $2.5 trillion, enough to carry the government past the presidential election in 2012, and avoid a default on the federal government's debt.
Minnesota's Democratic lawmakers generally support the Democratic plan put forward by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But the state's four Republicans are divided and undecided about the plan offered by GOP House Speaker John Boehner.
Boehner's proposal would raise the debt ceiling by an additional $2.5 trillion while cutting a similar amount from federal spending over the next decade without increasing revenues.
Boehner's plan has two steps, an initial vote to approve the plan and lift the debt limit by $1 trillion while making offsetting cuts to domestic spending of $1 trillion. Then, Congress would convene a bipartisan, bicameral commission of lawmakers who would find another $1.8 trillion in cuts from entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, passage of which would trigger another increase in the debt ceiling.
Minnesota's four Republican lawmakers are divided on Boehner's proposal. Rep. John Kline, the senior Republican in the delegation and a confidant of Boehner's, supports the plan. Meanwhile, Rep. Michele Bachmann, who's also running for the Republican presidential nomination, opposes any increase in the debt ceiling that does not also include a mechanism for de-funding last year's health care bill.
Reps. Erik Paulsen and Chip Cravaack are on the fence about the Boehner plan. In a brief conversation off of the House floor, Paulsen said he didn't know enough about the plan yet and hoped to learn more after a Republican caucus meeting tonight.
In an email, Cravaack's spokesman wrote, "The Representative's chief concerns remain sufficient spending cuts relative to the proposed debt increase, tax hikes on families and job creators, and a Balanced Budget Amendment to reform spending authority."
Indeed, a vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution is turning into a major sticking point with the fiscally-conservative Republican Study Group, which has come out against the Boehner proposal, potentially depriving the Speaker of enough votes to push his bill through the House.
But regardless of whether Boehner's bill makes it through the Republican-controlled House, it stands no chance of making it through the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Obama has threatened to veto the measure should it land on his desk.
The Senate proposal backed by Majority Leader Harry Reid is a major concession for Democrats, who had hoped to include revenue increases of some kind in a final deal to spare some of their domestic priorities from drastic cuts. Instead, like the Boehner plan, Reid's bill contains no revenue increases.
Reid's bill also calls for a single vote to extend the debt ceiling by $2.7 trillion while making comparable cuts over a decade. The cuts include counting savings from the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, a tactic some Republicans have denounced although their budget projections have made similar assumptions in the past. Unlike Boehner's bill, Reid's contains no cuts to entitlement programs.
Sen. Al Franken and Reps. Betty McCollum and Collin Peterson indicated that they would support Reid's proposal. Peterson had been concerned that both proposals would cut too deeply into agricultural programs, but in a brief interview this afternoon, he said he had spoken with Reid's office and was assured that agricultural programs would only be cut by approximately $12 billion over the next decade, a figure he found acceptable.
Rep. Keith Ellison's spokeswoman indicated that he was leaning towards supporting the Reid bill, too, because Reid's package makes no cuts to entitlement programs. Rep. Tim Walz would only say that he was looking into Reid's proposal but that he was opposed to Boehner's.
At this point, with a week left before the Treasury runs out of cash, a weekend session of Congress appears all but inevitable. What appears more up in the air is whether both parties can reach a deal.