Jacquelyn Martin/AP file photo

Congressional Leaders Meet as Fiscal Fights Loom Large

A potential government shutdown and national default hang in the balance.

With big deadlines and political hurdles looming over fights to keep the government funded and hike the nation’s borrowing limit, a meeting Thursday of the top four congressional leaders could set the tone for the autumn.

It will be the first get-together for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., since Congress returned from its summer recess. The closed-door setting for this kickoff meeting will be Boehner’s office at the Capitol.

“In my view, these next six weeks are going to in some ways be a litmus test as to whether America continues to be a great nation that can manage itself rationally and through a democratic process of compromise and agreement,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., on Tuesday.

Indeed, obstacles to cooperation are already surfacing, and a potential government shutdown and national default may hang in the balance.

A House vote planned for Thursday on a Republican bill to keep the government running beyond Sept. 30, when the current funding mechanism expires, was postponed Wednesday. Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and other GOP leaders determined they did not yet have the votes.

The leaders sought to appease right-wing members of their conference by tying the bill to a quirky procedure that would force the Senate to vote on defunding President Obama’s health care law. But that strategy has stalled.

However, lawmakers must find some way to keep federal offices running, even if only for the short term, to allow time for negotiations on a larger deal that would include raising the debt ceiling before mid-October, when estimates show the Treasury will no longer be able to pay U.S. obligations.

But, so far, congressional compromise and agreement are far from certain. Boehner himself has already promised a “whale of a fight” over raising the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt ceiling.

While the White House says President Obama won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling, because the United States must pay its bills, the speaker says Republicans won’t agree to lift the borrowing authority without significant spending cuts and changes to Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, farm programs, and government pensions.

Up to this point, the inability of leaders in both parties to make significant concessions has been a major obstacle, illustrated, for instance, by the fact that neither the House nor the Senate has reached agreement on regular appropriations bills.

Now, House Republicans are having difficulty unifying themselves behind a fiscal strategy, adding another layer of negotiation that may not bode well for talks with Democrats.

The stopgap spending measure that Republicans put forth this week, as officially introduced by Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., was expected to meet resistance from Democrats in both the House and Senate, even without the Affordable Care Act language. That’s because it would continue government spending through Dec. 15 at an annualized rate of $986.3 billion, just under the current level, which includes the sequestration cuts.

By contrast, the Democratic-led Senate has been writing up its spending bills for the next fiscal year with a topline of $1.059 trillion, on the assumption that sequestration would be repealed, which Democrats in both chambers have been seeking. Even without the Obamacare language, Hoyer told reporters that House Democrats would not support the House GOP bill because it maintains the sequester cuts.

And so Boehner, Cantor, and House leaders were left to depend on getting enough votes from their own party, and they determined that was not dependable. The delay could leave Boehner going into the Thursday’s meeting with Reid, McConnell, and Pelosi on less than solid ground.

Hoyer has already advised fellow Democrats not to make any plans for the last full week in September, on the suspicion that lawmakers may be still negotiating how to avert a government shutdown in the final days before Oct. 1.

Exactly how short GOP leaders are in terms of votes is unclear. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a close Boehner ally, said, “Obviously, we’re not where we need to be, or we would have voted on it.”

But perhaps a more ominous sign came from a statement released by Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 170 conservatives.

“We must use every legislative avenue,” he said, “through the CR, the debt ceiling, and the sequester conversations to free the country from the president’s train wreck of a health care law.”