Photo: Architect of the Capitol

As the epic conflict over the debt ceiling draws on, President Obama is besieged by denunciations from the right while fielding a blitz of disapproval from the angry left. The Democrats feel betrayed by his apparent willingness to sell the farm by agreeing to spending cuts demanded by Republicans to programs dear to Democrats. Obama has also been accused during the past week of being too removed from the fray after he and Speaker John Boehner reached an impasse, and negotiations over raising the debt ceiling moved to Congress.

Lawrence O’Donnnell, an MSNBC talk show host who has first-hand knowledge of how congressional negotiations work, rejects that idea. (He served as a key legislative aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan from 1989 to 1995.) O’Donnell believes the president has been very much involved — albeit behind the scenes — and is, in fact, orchestrating the entire drama. Unbeknownst to all the other players, theorizes O’Donnell, Obama never had any intention of agreeing to the cuts in Medicare and Social Security so painful to Democrats and so desired by Republicans. He may well have sabotaged the negotiation with Boehner to ensure the Republicans wouldn’t accept his offer. After the speaker had made the huge (for a Republican) concession of allowing $800 billion in tax increases, Obama called him and left a message asking for a 50 percent increase to $1.2 trillion in revenue. The president had to know that Boehner could never agree to such a large sum. (It is widely thought that Boehner walked out of his talks with the president because he knew he couldn’t sell the deal to his caucus.) Boehner was right — he couldn’t muster the votes to pass even the Republicans’ own plan. The president instead gained points with the public for being reasonable. He can now say he was willing to give, while the Republicans would only take. Of course, Obama also knew that his bluff would never be called, because his own party would have rejected the concessions he made.

We are now in the “stunt game” stage of the process, O’Donnell said on Thursday morning. On the other side of the aisle, the speaker is fully aware that the Democrats won’t accept the demands of the Tea Party faction of his members. He also knows that any Republican budget proposal will need Democratic votes to pass — but he didn’t expect to lack the necessary Republican votes. After 20 years in Congress, Boehner knows his way around Washington, so he also knows what to do to convince recalcitrant House members to vote for a distasteful bill.

Well, he thought he did. First he let the House pass the “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill (far more extreme than Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan, excoriated by Democrats), knowing it would die in the Senate. The speaker himself touted the virtues of the bill to gain credibility with the Tea Party. Boehner figured, O’Donnell believes, that that was the only way to convince the freshmen members of the futility of their demands and introduce them to the practical realities of a divided government. As Boehner had foreseen, Majority Leader Harry Reid immediately tabled “Cut, Cap and Balance,” essentially killing it. Boehner’s tactic should have been enough, and in previous years it would have been. But Boehner hadn’t reckoned with the extent of the freshmen’s intransigence and commitment to their pledges of shrinking the deficit exclusively with spending cuts.

The House majority fashioned another bill. It too, was rejected by the Senate. The Republicans wrote a third bill, but Boehner had to postpone the vote scheduled for Thursday afternoon, an implicit admission that the Republicans still weren’t able to agree among themselves. By Friday evening, Boehner had threatened or cajoled enough of his caucus to pass the bill. It squeaked by with a vote of 218-210, with no Democrats joining the slim majority. But to no avail: that bill too was quickly dismissed by the Senate.

The ball has landed in the Senate’s court. It was up to the Democratic majority to construct a bill that would be acceptable to the Republican-controlled House. On Saturday afternoon, however, the ball was forced out of bounds. Forty-three Republican senators wrote to Reid announcing they would not vote for the bill, meaning the legislation as it stands won’t make it out of the Senate. And the minority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said he would only negotiate with the president. Meanwhile, the House went ahead and voted on the Reid plan — even though the Senate has not — and rejected it by 173-246.

In the Senate, Reid is three votes short of the 60-vote super-majority insisted upon by the Republicans. The majority leader will have to either wheedle those votes from the Republican minority or convince them to vote with a simple majority. He does have one slim ray of hope: four Republican moderates didn’t sign the letter. One of them, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), said on Friday that he could vote on Reid’s plan as it stands.

With Tuesday’s sword of Damocles hanging over Congress and the nation, McConnell and Boehner held a news conference Saturday afternoon in which the Senate minority leader said that he believed the president was now fully engaged in the debate and that he believed a solution could be reached. “I’m confident and optimistic that we’re going to get an agreement in the very near future and resolve this crisis in the best interests of the American people,” McConnell said. Meanwhile, Reid and the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, were meeting with the president at the White House. After that meeting, Reid said the were no closer to a deal.

What got people at least talking again? No one has said specifically, but one theory has it that troops in Afghanistan may have jolted the politicians into action when they asked Adm. Mike Mullen if they would be paid if a deal isn’t reached on the debt ceiling. “I actually don’t know the answer to that question,” said Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He added: “I have confidence that at some point in time, whatever compensation you are owed, you will be given.”

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  • Claude July 31, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Some say they should just lock the doors until the Congress can come to an agreement. I think they should do it while the Congressmen are out to lunch. Replace them temporarily with a mob of macaques to get the deal together and the whole thing will go much smoother.

  • Harvey Meer July 30, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    I think the should be an educational qualification to be a legislator just like we have for doctors, plumbers or electricians. What we see here is uneducated Congressmen voting on an economic issue and more interested in idelogical purity than governance in the best iterest of the country.

  • Clarine Gardner July 30, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    With all the “ONE PERCENT”, big time baseball, football, basketball players with all this money they make and the wealthy like johnson & johnson, bill gates, proctor and gamble, warren buffet, hiltons, those who have many mansions and vacation homes that they can only live in one at a time…
    Stop taking from those who barely have. Haven’t enough been taken already throughout the years? Now you want to take what is left that most depend on to survive-the entitlements, programs for the youth to keep them of the dangerous streets..what if it were your child. What if your family depended on the entitlements every month and your parents were receiving social security checks that helped pay for their needs or your family was one that relied on govt entitlements to keep a roof over head and food on the table? No you don’t think about the rest of the country because you have way more than enough…..Stop the excessive spending and tax the RICH! Question does America tax other countries that business is done with? Just wondering.