Top 4 in Congress not so fab on debt deal _ yet

By Laurie Kellman

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, July 26 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nev., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 25, 2011, as he announced a new proposal to solve the debt limit crisis.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — For all the debt deal dynamics in Washington, a final agreement really comes down to a gang of four.

It's this quartet — Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in the House; Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the Senate — who will have to draw on their experience, skill and charm to find the deal and the votes to pass it for averting an unprecedented government default next week. It also has to be a deal that can get President Barack Obama's signature.

Deadline pressure is testing those abilities, and their tempers. McConnell complained that Reid had dropped a deal the pair had labored over after Obama balked.

Reid denied that. "I would say to my friend Mitch McConnell: Nice try, but don't blame this on the president."

In the collegial Senate, those are relatively terse words. But the stakes couldn't be higher, or the consequences darker for the fragile economy.

By all accounts, there is a measure of trust among the four congressional veterans. They've worked together before, in the 2008 financial crisis, for example.

A look at the four leaders.

The debt debate carries great weight in Boehner's young speakership, a test of how much trust and clout he commands in a Republican caucus in which a sizable group equates any compromise with failure. It's also the moment where Boehner stands to define himself on the global stage, the man second in line to the presidency who either can or cannot handle big disputes over economics and policy.

Boehner, 61, spent weeks exploring a compromise with a president 12 years his junior, sometimes in secret. But Boehner also walked away from those talks twice, very publicly.

To some degree, Boehner has positioned himself above the intemperate tussling of others in his caucus, including the handful of Republicans who think a government default on its financial obligations would be no big deal. He's dismissed any suggestion of a fight for primacy between himself and his ambitious second-in-command, Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

"We're in the foxhole" together, Boehner said earlier this month, throwing his arm around Cantor after a tense exchange between Obama and the Virginia Republican.

Boehner's affability figures in too. He works closely with McConnell and is regarded with affection by lawmakers of both parties. He may need the support of Democrats if the final deal is to pass the House.

At a recent event celebrating the speakership of Kentuckian Henry Clay, the moderator predicted that Pelosi would release some of her Democrats to vote for the final plan. She laughed, and the conversation came down to the House math that will determine the outcome — for the nation, and for Boehner.

"The speaker has all of my sympathy," Pelosi, a year ago speaker herself, offered.

"Yeah," he replied. But "do I get any votes?"

Some dethroned House speakers call it quits and depart for the peace of retirement. But Pelosi, the first woman to hold the speakership, chose instead to run for re-election as the House's top Democrat after leading her party to defeat in the 2010 elections.

She sees the debt debate as central to winning back control of the House in 2012 — and, perhaps, a measure of vindication.

Does Boehner — or Obama, for that matter — get Democratic votes for a deal, and how many? Depends, she says.

"If we're going to have to supply the votes, we're going to have to be at the table," she told The Associated Press.

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