If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, agreements to raise the federal debt ceiling and on deficit reduction start with a Thursday White House meeting, the first of likely many between Vice President Biden and a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
Most immediately, the White House and lawmakers need to agree on raising the debt limit so the nation doesn't default for the first time in its history on its financial obligations.
Congressional Republicans have insisted for weeks that any vote to increase that ceiling be tied to real reductions in federal spending with some GOP lawmakers saying they would refuse to vote for a ceiling increase without a guarantee of budget cuts.
The Wall Street Journal reports that one way policymakers see of getting to yes, at least on raising the debt ceiling, is for the Obama White House and congressional Republicans to agree to defer controversial ideas for deficit reduction, such as profound changes to entitlement programs like Medicare, until after the 2012 general election. An excerpt:
GOP leaders and the White House are discussing a deal that would enact strict deficit targets and some spending cuts to win Republican votes for lifting the ceiling on how much the federal government can borrow.
The deal would defer contentious decisions about Medicare, Medicaid and taxes until after the 2012 elections. If such an agreement were reached, it would allow both sides to assure financial markets and the public of their commitment to reducing the deficit and then use next year's campaign to lay out their competing visions for the future of major government programs.
Along those lines of deferring the big stuff until voters have a chance to give one party or the other a clearer mandate, the Washington Post reports that House Republicans will offer other ideas where significant savings might be had:
On the eve of debt-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) said Republicans remain convinced that reining in federal retirement programs is the key to stabilizing the nation's finances over the long term. But he said Republicans recognize they may need to look elsewhere to achieve consensus after President Obama "excoriated us" for a proposal to privatize Medicare.
That search could start, Cantor said, with a list of GOP proposals that would save $715 billion over the next decade by ending payments to wealthy farmers, limiting lawsuits against doctors, and expanding government auctions of broadcast spectrum to telecommunications companies, among other items.
Democrats said they were encouraged by the move, which could smooth the way to a compromise allowing Congress to raise the legal limit on government borrowing and avoid a national default.
Meanwhile, other reporting indicates that not only do Democrats and Republicans need to find common ground, Senate Democrats apparently need to find reach agreement with each other, too.
But apparently, Senate Democrats can't even find agreement among themselves on what approach to pursue. Roll Call reports that Senate Democrats won't have a specific, deficit-reduction proposal of their own to present at the talks, in part because of their failure to decide on a single approach. An excerpt:
But even if Reid wanted to put a specific proposal on the table, his caucus is deeply divided over what to do, with perhaps a half-dozen approaches under consideration. Plus, the Majority Leader has already watched three in his caucus sign on to a Republican-backed spending cap, and he will have to contend with liberals worried about proposals that include deep spending cuts to their favorite programs.
"It's a mess," another Democratic aide said.
Sen. Patty Murray acknowledged that Democrats don't yet have a plan.
"I think there is the fact that we need to come to consensus, but on what it is yet, we're not there," the Washington state Democrat said.