New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 07, 2012
WASHINGTON » At House Speaker John A. Boehner's request, Senate leaders and Rep. Nancy Pelosi have been excluded from talks to avert a fiscal crisis, leaving it to Boehner and President Barack Obama alone to find a deal, congressional aides say.
All sides, even the parties excluded, say clearing the negotiating room improves the chance of success. It adds complexity as the two negotiators consult separately with the leaders not in the room. But it also minimizes the number of people who need to say yes to an initial agreement.
"This is now the speaker and the president working this through," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No.2 Democrat.
White House aides and the speaker's staff, by mutual agreement, have largely shut down public communication about the talks to avert hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to begin in January if no deal can be reached. Both sides said on Thursday that lines of communication remained open.
For public consumption, Democrats and Republicans are engaging in an increasingly elaborate show of political theater. Obama on Thursday went to the home of a middle-income family in the Virginia suburbs of Washington to press for an extension of expiring middle-class tax cuts — and for the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts on incomes over $250,000.
"Just to be clear, I'm not going to sign any package that somehow prevents the top rate from going up for folks at the top 2 percent," Obama said."But I do remain optimistic that we can get something done."
On Capitol Hill, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., moved Thursday to vote on Obama's proposal, in his broader deficit package, to permanently diminish Congress' control over the federal government's statutory borrowing limit, assuming that Democrats would break ranks and embarrass the president. Instead, Democratic leaders did a count, found they had 51 solid votes, and took McConnell up on what Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, called "a positive development."
McConnell then filibustered his own bill, objecting to a simple-majority vote and saying a change of such magnitude requires the assent of 60 senators.
"I do believe we made history on the Senate floor today," Durbin said.The government is expected to hit its borrowing limit in late January or early February, and it is an added complication in the deficit talks because some House Republicans say they will demand further spending cuts before they lift the debt ceiling. Obama has said that any deal on taxes and spending must ensure that there will not be another crisis over the debt ceiling early next year.
But the White House on Thursday gave Republicans assurances the president would not employ a potent weapon to get what he wants. Some Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, have theorized that the Constitution gives the president the authority to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally, citing a clause in the 14th Amendment guaranteeing that the nation's debts "shall not be questioned."
Obama renounced such an assertion of authority on Thursday through his spokesman. "I can say that this administration does not believe that the 14th Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling," Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters, reading from remarks that had been prepared for him.
Administration officials had long discounted the possibility that the president would claim such power, but Thursday's statement seemed more definitive than any in the past.
The exclusion of Sens. Reid and McConnell and Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, is a departure from last year's search for a major deficit deal. Then, deficit talks between Obama and Boehner coincided with side talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, which were followed by broader talks by a special bipartisan congressional committee. All failed.
This time, while Boehner has made himself the sole focal point, aides say he has made sure a broad leadership team is behind him. He meets every morning while the House is in session with the full slate of Republican leaders, as well as the committee chairmen who would most likely implement a deal: Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who heads the Budget Committee, Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, who leads the Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who heads the Energy and Commerce Committee.
White House officials have begun daily conference calls with the communications staffs of Reid and Pelosi. The White House communications director, DanPfeiffer, met with the Senate Democratic Caucus last week, and the director of the National Economic Council, Gene Sperling, spoke with the House Democrats late last month.
The arrangement has led to bipartisan grumbling. Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent and perhaps the Senate's most liberal member, said on Thursday that Senate Democrats needed to find a way to make themselves more relevant to the search for a resolution to the so-called fiscal cliff.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., has gone to the Senate floor repeatedly to denounce "secret" deficit talks.
"Shouldn't the president lay out his plan?" Sessions asked. "He's the president of the United States and the only one who represents everybody. Or will that remain a secret? Will it just be revealed to us on the eve of Christmas or on the eve of the new calendar year and we will be asked to vote for it like lemmings?"