Susan Walsh, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — It played out on two tracks, the struggle to head off a national default. One was for show. The other was for real. That's how most big things happen in Washington.
The final votes were public, not even all that close in the end.
But the crisis was genuine, and the real crisis management took place in private
The tracks finally came together, in the nick of time, when the Senate granted final passage to legislation raising the U.S. debt ceiling, trimming spending and punting the most painful decisions on deficits down the road. President Barack Obama's pen sealed the deal Tuesday afternoon.
Anyone tuned to the capital's ways just knew the negotiations for a debt deal would go down to the final hours and everything that unfolded before that in the public eye was theater, hollow suspense.
The drama was behind the curtains. That's where Republicans and Democrats up and down the chain of authority finally joined in a common cause to stave off a potentially catastrophic default on debt payments.
It's where something truly historic slipped from the grasp of political leaders. Their agreement averts a default but merely delays the hardest choices on taxes and spending.
And it's where Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and his staff, cramming down Chinese food Saturday night, broke open a fortune cookie that warned: "You may be spending too much money." A touch of comic relief near the end.
In the voting well of the Senate chamber, the intersection between bluster and bargaining could be seen in the body language of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. Facing a tea party challenge in her re-election fight, she had co-written a newspaper column about how bad the deal taking shape had looked.
That was her conservative face, turned to the audience.
She took her sweet time down the aisle, paused in the well, then looked up to see six senators around her, McConnell's face hovering just over her left shoulder. They didn't need her vote to pass the bill, but they wanted it.
At decision time, she smiled at their attention, demurely lifted a finger, and voted aye.
This was her moderate face, the one that counted Tuesday.
Over days if not weeks, legislative aides worked themselves sick with exhaustion. Coffee spilled on White House carpet during endless hours of bleary-eyed brinkmanship and bargaining.
Breakthrough moments collapsed into familiar but increasingly unaffordable partisan discord, only to be reincarnated when progress mattered the most — and not a moment sooner.
The stagecraft on both sides was primarily if not purely for campaign consumption: speeches that changed no minds, votes that didn't matter, dead-end detours taken by one party or the other as grist for political ads down the road.
Republicans had to be seen standing firm against higher taxes and for spending cuts sensational enough to appease the right. Democrats spoke as guardians of the social compact — defenders of Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and more. That's why one of them called the deal "a Satan sandwich." Stay tuned for much more of that in the lead-up to the 2012 elections.
For a time, it seemed as if the classic battle lines might give way to something new.
Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner had been quietly working on the framework of a potentially historic deficit deal that would take on spending, taxes, entitlements — all of it.
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