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Waiting Is Hardest Part: What To Look For From Congress Next

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Waiting. Then more waiting. That’s what Congress has in store for us this weekend, even as people across the country look to Washington for a solution on the debt ceiling deadlock.

Now that the House has done its work by passing Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) plan — and Senate Democratic leaders plan to table the bill, effectively killing it — we take a look at likely next steps.

Be warned, however: The wheels of the Senate can move slowly, very slowly. This despite the fact that President Obama says he needs a deal on his desk by Tuesday, when the country will likely run out of money to pay all of its bills.

In place of the Boehner plan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will offer a plan that cuts spending over 10 years by roughly the same amount the debt ceiling would be raised (about $2.4 trillion). This is supposed to raise the ceiling high enough to keep the government running through to January 2013.

Reid’s plan is expected to have the support of the 53 Democrats and allied independents in the Senate. They’ll likely vote for it even though most of them loathe the fact that it contains no revenue increases, only cuts to spending.

The question then becomes: Are there seven Republicans willing to support it? That question is crucial because Reid needs 60 votes to cut off the Republican filibusters expected to begin as soon as the Boehner plan gets tabled.

It’s “filibusters” in the plural because there will likely be more than one. The leader of the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), can’t stop filibusters all by himself, even if he wants to. That’s a potential problem as there are several determined senators who seem committed to filibuster the Reid plan.

If they do, the spectacle the public will be watching for the next couple of days and nights — or not — will be a mostly quiet Senate chamber. That’s because the Senate no longer requires filibustering senators to hold the floor in the traditional, physical sense. Filibusters are now “virtual” in nature, with the clock on the filibuster running whether anyone is actually speaking or not.

In this case, it’s likely the protagonists will give speeches at least part of the time, but not most of the time.

Now comes the fun part, at least if you like to dive into the arcane working of the Senate filibuster system. Those of you already begging for mercy may now stop reading.

The first likely filibuster involves Reid’s move to table Boehner’s bill if and when news of its passage is officially sent from the House to the Senate. It would take 30 hours of floor time before the first cloture vote to cut off debate could be taken.

This would probably happen in the wee hours of Sunday morning (after midnight on Saturday night). If Reid has seven Republicans to help him in the middle of the night, then the Boehner plan will be dead and buried in some dark corner of the Capitol.

Then Reid will attempt to bring up his own plan up for debate. This is when the second filibuster will likely begin. The second cloture vote to end debate on this action would happen Monday morning, around breakfast time.

At that point the Senate would finally be on the Reid plan, formally, and another 30 hours of post-cloture debate would ensue. It may not all have to be used, of course. But it is there if someone wants to use it.

Assuming Reid can hold his 60 votes together through all this, the Senate will pass his plan and send it to the House. This could happen as soon as Monday or as late as Tuesday.

This would be a good point for a negotiated debt ceiling deal to happen — something that could clear both chambers and be signed by the president.

In the absence of such a deal, if all House Republicans vote against the Reid plan, it too will die. On the other hand, if some Republicans are willing to vote for Reid’s plan rather than force default, then a near-unanimous caucus of Democrats could pass the Reid plan.

If one were to speculate, it’s possible to see roughly one-fifth of the Republicans and about 170 Democrats (out of 193) passing the Reid plan.

It is also possible that enough Republicans will simply refuse to vote that the Democrats could pass the Reid plan on their own. That might be a more palatable option for their caucus.

The catch — there’s always a catch — is that it will be Wednesday or Thursday before the House can vote again, assuming the Senate has to run through the filibusters mentioned earlier in this post.

So even if Congress makes it all the way through the scenarios laid out here and gets a bill to the president that he will sign, the Aug. 2 deadline will have passed a day or two before and the government may have already started having trouble meeting all of its financial obligations.

Or maybe not. Some Republicans have argued that the “deadline” is fuzzy and that there may be just a little more wiggle room than the president has admitted to. This we do know: Only time will tell.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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