President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner were the key players – the starting quarterbacks – in the debt ceiling debate that ate up most of the long, lazy days of summer – at least until the game’s two-minute warning sounded.
Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle all played critical roles in the budget contest that went down to the wire. But it was each team’s back-up quarterbacks that drove the ball down to the 1-yard line.
Going into the last weekend in July, Obama, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had used everything in their playbook. That’s when Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reemerged.
In past years, high-level political negotiations and wars were initially fought out of the public’s eyes and reported by the media after the fact and on the evening news. Now for the most part, both are fought in real time and in public battlefields. Missiles fired and verbal jabs thrown during the heat of battle are seen and heard within moments after they are launched.
But in a flashback to a past era, McConnell did what Lyndon Johnson made famous – he picked up the phone and called the one person he knew he could deal with: Joe Biden.
Despite being on opposite sides of the political aisle, Biden and McConnell have a long friendship based on their days in the Senate together. Their combined 64 years of experience became invaluable, as both knew they were each other’s last resort in seeking a quick resolution.
The two began talking around 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.
“I didn’t have to waste a lot of time telling Joe what my bottom line was,” McConnell told The Washington Post.
President Obama first demanded Congress raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached. That wasn’t an option. Conservatives and tea party activists put their foot down. Speaker Boehner wanted a balanced budget amendment and “Cut, Cap and Balance” passed before the debt ceiling was raised. Democrats in the Senate said “no.”
By this point, Obama was a non-factor and it was all Boehner could do to keep around 100 conservatives from wandering off the reservation.
All Biden and McConnell had to do was work out the details. Republicans were standing firm on no new taxes. Democrats demanded the president be given an additional $2 trillion to increase the debt ceiling and any cuts be made over the long-term – the longer the better. A special “super committee” would be assembled to examine additional savings of at least $1.2 trillion, even venturing into the sacred areas of entitlements.
Agreeing to when the “triggers” would be pulled was their final hurdle. If the “super committee” deadlocked or if Congress brushed off their suggestions it would most likely produce a public backlash not yet seen in modern political history.
After covering a couple of other issues such as defense spending, the two veteran political leaders drew their line in the sand and stood on their respective sides. The two backup quarterbacks exited the game and allowed the starting quarterbacks to return to the game; President Obama and House Speaker Boehner trotted back onto the field.
McConnell went back to Boehner with details of the plan. The House still wanted deeper spending cuts without touching defense.
Obama and Boehner talked on the phone Sunday evening, with Boehner unable to move Obama any further. After all, it wasn’t these two leaders who made the final deal, they just had to agree to it.
McConnell’s heavy lifting was over. Both he and Reid could easily muster a majority in the Senate. It was Biden and Boehner who had more work to do.
Boehner pulled together all but 66 Republican votes and Pelosi delivered 95 Democrats. Biden was dispatched to the Capitol and even after yet another verbal gaff in at least agreeing that some Republicans were acting like “terrorists,” he settled down progressive Democrats in the House and Senate.
In what President Obama later described as a “dysfunctional” government, it functioned long enough to agree to something, albeit unpopular with everyone. Washington insiders Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell were the real players who hammered the agreement deal out behind the scenes.