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Published: 7/2/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

On-time deal on debt limit is unlikely

Process too complex for any quick action

BLADE NEWS SERVICES
The Marine One helicopter ferries President Obama to Camp David, where he'll spend the July Fourth holiday. The Marine One helicopter ferries President Obama to Camp David, where he'll spend the July Fourth holiday.
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WASHINGTON -- As the U.S. Treasury Friday reaffirmed an Aug. 2 deadline for Congress to approve new borrowing and avoid a default, lawmakers headed home for the holiday weekend.

But it may be even more difficult than it appears for Congress to reach a deal to raise America's borrowing limit and slash spending in time.

Maybe all but impossible.

Even if quarreling lawmakers can somehow agree this month, it is doubtful that they can write it up in binding fashion and pass it by one month from today.

Congress could end up having to vote at least twice on the politically poisonous issue of raising the debt ceiling, now $14.3 trillion, to avoid a first-ever government default.

The first vote would be on an interim raise, possibly in the tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars, to give Congress time to wrap up a bargain letting the government go trillions of dollars deeper in debt in exchange for spending cuts and possibly higher taxes totaling an equal amount.

"It will take time, and that is a bit troublesome," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.), who represented Senate Republicans in budget talks led by Vice President Joe Biden.

Veterans of previous budget deals say that there's no way President Obama and Congress can meet the Aug. 2 deadline even if a broad pact is reached in the next two weeks.

First, it could take weeks more for lawmakers and staff aides to implement that deal negotiated by the President and the two parties' leaders.

Then, lawmakers would need time to examine and digest the legislation.

And that's not all.

"There's the need to write it, the need to read it, the need to understand it, the need to score it, the need for it to be 'real,' the need for it to be processed and supported by each side's base, the need to assemble the necessary votes," said GOP lobbyist Eric Ueland, a former longtime Senate aide.

That's assuming everything goes according to plan, that the pact doesn't get blown up by a revolt from the Tea Party on the right or frustrated Democrats on the left.

That's a huge "if."

It took many months to move a 2005 budget-cutting bill -- which ended up cutting about $100 billion over 10 years -- through the system, and that was when Republicans controlled both the White House and all the congressional committees that drew up the legislation.

Now, GOP-controlled House panels and Democratic-led Senate panels with little experience working together will have to write up a pact hatched by Mr. Obama and top leaders in both parties.

Administration officials see July 22 as the deadline to reach a deal and leave enough time to formally draft the package and move it through both houses of Congress. But some lawmakers say it's too late to draft legislation of the size and complexity under discussion.

This group believes there will be a short-term extension of the debt ceiling -- or a brief period of default -- as the final details are approved through a summer session that lasts deep into August.

The degree of difficulty is heightened by the desire to generate a package of deficit cuts in the range of $2.4 trillion over the coming decade to balance a similar increase in the debt limit -- one that's large enough to keep the government afloat past the November, 2012, election.

Discussions led by Mr. Biden focused on more than $1 trillion in savings, most from money assigned to Cabinet agency budgets passed each year by Congress.

But the types of additional ideas that could get lawmakers to the $2 trillion-plus target, such as cuts to Medicare providers or targeted tax increases, invite sparring from industry groups and their defenders on Capitol Hill.

Another idea, a new government cost-of-living adjustment that would affect both Social Security benefits and tax brackets, is simpler to draft but may be too big a lift politically.

So what are the chances of threading the needle and getting a $2.4 trillion debt pact passed by Aug. 2?

"You can't," said Bill Hoagland, a former Senate GOP veteran of budget deals dating back to the Reagan administration.

"All I can think here is that if you had an agreement in principle, you would have an agreement to vote on a temporary increase in the statutory debt limit while the details are worked out and the legislative language is put together."

Any legislation cutting so much -- including farm subsidies, federal health-care programs, and federal retirement benefits -- is going to be hard for many lawmakers to digest.

And with the vote likely to be on a knife's edge in both the House and Senate, the leverage of individual lawmakers to protect parochial interests is magnified.

For veterans of the process like former GOP aide Mr. Ueland, the puzzle doesn't fit together -- at least by the close of the current Aug. 2 window.



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