Deal Was Forged Over Choices and Chinese Food

John Boehner

“Congratulations on finally getting your bill through,” Mr. Obama said, according to a Democrat familiar with the conversation. “You know you’re not going to get through the Senate, so now we need to focus on a solution.”

Roughly 48 hours later, at 8:15 on Sunday night, the president again called Mr. Boehner from the Oval Office.

“Do we have a deal?” Mr. Obama asked, then stopped abruptly. His senior advisers, standing nearby, gathered that Mr. Boehner had interrupted the president, and they braced for confirmation of the worst in Mr. Obama’s next words. Instead, there was relief.

“Congratulations to you, too, John,” Mr. Obama finally said.

In between those two calls was a weekend of nonstop horse-trading, from a windowless Capitol basement room to the Oval Office, over a deal to increase the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling and reduce future budget deficits. There were flashes of hope and heart-stopping moments when failure — and a government default on its bills — seemed inevitable.

Anticipated since Republicans won control of the House last November, the showdown was proving the ultimate test of divided government; success hinged largely on Mr. Boehner’s uncompromising House Republicans’ providing enough votes to approve the deal and make sure it got to Mr. Obama by Tuesday midnight, the administration’s deadline for raising the debt ceiling, or very soon after.

Pivotal to the final deal-making was the Republican minority leader in the Senate, Senator Mitch McConnell, and his back-channel talks with his former Senate colleague, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Last week Mr. Biden had reached out to Mr. McConnell, but only on Friday morning did he call back — just long enough to say that they had nothing to discuss until the fate of Mr. Boehner’s bill, which would have made a debt limit increase contingent on huge spending cuts and passage of a balanced-budget amendment, was settled. That night, soon after the Boehner bill cleared the House, the Democratic-led Senate rejected it; the next day, the House Republicans in turn rejected a plan that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, was proposing.

That point, people on both sides recall, was the nadir after months of maneuvering and negotiations. The debt-limit deadline was four days away and the two sides were as far apart as ever, no compromise in sight. Mr. Boehner had moved farther right to win his members’ support, and it seemed no one in either party could envision a compromise that could draw enough Republican votes to get through the House.

“Now I’m scared,” an administration official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, confessed then.

But dread was suspended on Saturday afternoon. At about 1:30, Mr. McConnell called Mr. Biden again, ready to engage. And the vice president was ready with a list of administration ideas for compromise — worked up while the White House was forced to the sidelines of the partisan Congressional debates. The question was whether Mr. McConnell could speak for Mr. Boehner.

That morning, in the Capitol basement, intentionally far from roaming reporters’ eyes, Mr. Obama’s chief Congressional lobbyist, Rob Nabors, had broached some of the administration proposals with Mr. Boehner’s chief of staff, Barry Jackson, and his policy director, Brett Loper.

In all such talks, officials say, the White House made it clear: which options Mr. Boehner chose would determine how many votes he would get from Democrats to offset his Republican defections, pass a debt-limit deal and avoid blame for a default.

That reality increased the 11th-hour leverage of Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic minority leader in the House. She and Mr. Reid, feeling left out, had been seething as the White House dealt with Republican leaders.

At 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Mr. Obama had them both to the White House to hear the compromise ideas that three aides — Gene Sperling, the senior White House economic adviser; Jacob J. Lew, the budget director, and Bruce Reed, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff — had worked up. If both parties later this year did not agree on a 10-year deficit reduction plan — or approve a balanced budget amendment, which was unlikely — so-called triggers would automatically impose policies that each party would want to avoid. (Ultimately, both sides agreed that the threats would be deep cuts in military spending — anathema to Republicans — and deep Medicare cuts, opposed by Democrats.)

Leave a Reply