WASHINGTON -- Sunday night's much anticipated debt ceiling meeting between the president and congressional leadership managed to produce an outcome, just not the desirable one. Attendees did not find agreement on a package of cuts, revenues, or entitlement reforms. Instead, they settled on the decision to meet again and, perhaps after Monday's meeting, again after that.
As the government approaches the August 2 date at which it will run out of cash, the need to hold meetings is the only thing both sides can agree on.
Sunday night proved no different, as lawmakers met in the Cabinet Room with no apparent budging from either end. According to multiple attendees, the discussion began with President Obama pressing, once more, for lawmakers to consider a "grand" bargain to end the debt ceiling debate, something that would combine $1 trillion in revenue raisers with $3 trillion in cuts, including reforms to Medicare and Medicaid and smaller tinkers to Social Security.
"The basic thrust of the meeting was the president making the case for why to do a big deal and putting it to everyone around the table: if not now, when? And if not the big deal, then what is the alternative, particularly given that it is the Republicans who have said we need to use this opportunity to do something serious about the deficit," said a Democratic official briefed on the meeting. "The president is a bit frustrated too ... He is out there. He is ready and willing to take political heat. He is already taking some heat."
Less than 24 hours earlier, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had formally rejected the very offer that Obama was pressing for, insinuating that it was too heavy a political lift and that negotiators would be better served building on the $2.4 trillion deal that Vice President Joseph Biden had been crafting in a series of bipartisan meetings with congressional leaders. Obama's pitch did little to chip away at that opposition. The speaker, according to several sources briefed on Sunday's meeting, did not say much during it, deferring instead to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). But a Boehner aide made it clear after the fact that his boss hadn't exactly been won over.
"The speaker told the group that he believes a package based on the work of the Biden group is the most viable option at this time for moving forward," said the aide. "The speaker restated the fundamental principles that must be met for any increase in the debt limit: spending cuts and reforms that are greater than the amount of the increase, restraints on future spending, and no tax hikes."
And so it went for roughly 75 minutes, as the eight congressional attendees, along with the president and vice president, spoke at varying lengths about not just the economic logic of their respective plans but the political arithmetic behind them.
Cantor and Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the Senate minority whip, both insisted that a grand bargain did not have the votes needed to pass. "We should start talking about the Biden-type framework instead," they added, according to a GOP source briefed on the meeting.
Biden, for his part, reminded the Republican attendees that the package they were now touting was one they had previously abandoned (both Cantor and Kyl walked away from the negotiating table when the talks turned to revenues). Besides that, he argued, it wasn't really a package at all, but rather a list of goals with blanks requiring filling.
"The one really important point Biden made is that it is a bit of a fallacy to talk about the Biden framework as something that could just be taken off the shelf, because nothing was agreed to in those conversations and the vice president made it very clear that we weren't going to [reach a deal] without revenues," said the Democratic official briefed on the meeting.
If lawmakers wanted to go even smaller -- say, take the $1 trillion in cuts that Biden and Republicans had pinpointed - they would have to convince the president first. Obama, according to a GOP aide, told attendees on Sunday that he would not sign a debt deal that didn't go through 2013. He and Biden also made it clear that even the smaller packages would have to have a revenue component to earn their support.
For all the intractability, there were relatively few moments of tension on Sunday evening. According to those briefed on the exchanges, lawmakers took turns talking about their preferred approaches. There were some jabs thrown. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), according to a Hill aide, accused the Republican Party of falling far short of their rhetorical bluster when the topic came to deficit reduction. He pointed to the fiscal commission, the Gang of Six negotiations, the Biden deal and Boehner's refusal to craft a grand compromise with Obama as instances in which Republicans simply left the table when it came time to make tough choices. "Every time we try to do something big on this, you walk away," the aide paraphrased him as saying.
By and large, however, the conversation was, as one Democratic official acknowledged, "cordial." And that may be where the problem lies. With ten days to go before the president wants a bill presented -- so that it can go through the legislative process in time to pass by August 2 -- the sides are still dealing in broad strokes. Additionally, there isn't a clear sense of what type of package could garner the necessary support. The president will be hosting a news conference on Monday before he meets with congressional negotiators once more. He left the meeting on Sunday telling them to have their schedules cleared or flexible for the full week.
"The president ended the meeting by saying we will come back here tomorrow and that we should be prepared to be here every day," recalled the Democratic official briefed on the meeting. "He said, I want people to come back here tomorrow with an answer to the question: If not this, what is your plan and how are you going to get 218 votes [in the House] for it?"