With Reporting By Jen Bendery
WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on Wednesday that he opposed pursuing a one-month extension of the nation's debt ceiling so that Congress could hammer out legislative language and agreement on the so-called Gang of Six deficit reduction compromise.
In a lunch with a handful of reporters, Reid cautioned that the process of actually writing the legislation and getting it scored by the Congressional Budget Office could last beyond the month of August. Even if those tasks were completed within a month's extension of the Aug. 2 debt ceiling deadline, he added, the prospects of finding the necessary votes to pass the Gang of Six package wouldn't necessarily improve. In fact, they might get even more daunting.
The comments -- which were made off the record but approved for use by a Reid aide -- come at exactly the same time that the White House is signaling it would be open to a short-term extension on the federal debt ceiling as long as an agreement on a significant deficit reduction plan was reached in time.
"We believe a short-term extension, absent an agreement to a larger deal, is unacceptable," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney at Wednesday's briefing. "Obviously if both sides agree to something significant, we would support the measures needed to finalize the details."
After the briefing, Carney issued a clarifying statement: “The President does not support a short-term extension of the debt limit, period. The only exception to that is in the event that both sides reach a deal on a long-term extension of the debt limit plus significant deficit reduction, and we needed a very short-term extension (like a few days) to allow a bit of extra time for a bill to work its way through the legislative process."
The administration had, up to that point, threatened to veto legislation that didn't extend the debt ceiling until passed the 2012 elections. But the prospects of passing something along the lines of the Gang of Six agreement, which would reduce the deficit by $3.7 trillion over ten years, primarily through sharp spending cuts and benefit-reducing entitlement reforms (with revenue-neutral corporate tax reform), have seemingly reopened negotiations over timing.
Indeed, in the halls of Congress on Wednesday, senators from both parties were cautiously optimistic that an 11th hour compromise could end up salvaging months of tedious negotiations. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) was insistent that there was enough time to write and score the legislative language even before the Aug. 2 deadline was reached.
"We have a draft of the legislative language already. It has to be updated with the most recent decisions because we didn't fully conclude until this week," said Conrad. "The scoring, since most of this bill is process, wouldn't take that long. The elements of the down payment could be pretty readily scored, so I don't think that's the great hurdle here."
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), while declining to take a position on the substance of the Gang of Six plan, nevertheless embraced the idea that lawmakers should be granted more time to consider it.
"That seems to me to be maybe a practical solution," he told The Huffington Post. "We've got a new idea that's shown some momentum, but we've got to get our brains around it and understand it and also give it the kind of transparency that I think the public is demanding."
Requesting more time to simply consider the Gang of Six plan is, in the end, fundamentally different than requesting more time to pass it. And Cornyn made no mention in his statement of Carney's demands that there be an agreement on the package before the White House would support a short-term debt ceiling extension.
More importantly, it seems clear that congressional leadership finds a short-term extension less than appealing. Two top Senate aides both told The Huffington Post that the Majority Leader expressed similar opposition to the idea during a caucus meeting on Tuesday, stressing that a solution to the debt ceiling was needed "now." His concerns, the aides added, related not to the substance of the Gang of Six agreement -- which received a blistering review from the labor federation AFL-CIO on Wednesday -- but, rather, to procedural hurdles.
Both he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continue to work on a fallback solution to raising the debt ceiling through 2012. And the plan remains to hold a vote on that measure, perhaps as early as this Sunday.