WASHINGTON — Congress plans two largely symbolic but politically significant votes starting Tuesday on proposals that conservative groups vow will be remembered during the 2012 elections: a plan to slash federal spending and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
But the real action continues to be behind the scenes, where the White House and congressional leaders are frantically trying to work out a deal that will raise the federal debt limit while cutting future federal budget deficits. Until a deal is done, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday, the Senate will stay at work seven days a week.
"The Senate will stay in session every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, from now until Congress passes legislation that prevents the United States from defaulting on our obligations," he said.
Meanwhile, the coming two votes are significant for two reasons, one political, one tactical. Supporters will feel a strong political wind at their backs: A well-funded network of conservative groups is spotlighting the votes as defining ones.
"If they're not voting the right way, some of these guys need to go," said Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, a conservative grass-roots group. "If you drink from the Potomac, we'll send someone else. I don't think there's any litmus test. But every vote is chiseled onto a tablet."
Remember, said Brent Bozell, the chairman of ForAmerica.org, another conservative group, "America will be watching and will remember on Election Day." The Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America, two more conservative pressure groups, also said they'd be watching.
If the conservative plans fall short of enactment, as expected in the Democratic-controlled Senate, attention will turn by midweek to a possible deal to cut spending and raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit. If that limit isn't raised by Aug. 2, the government will run out of borrowing authority and possibly default on its debt. The mere prospect could spook financial markets and kick the weak economy back into recession.
GOP leaders have suggested recently that after the two conservative-plan votes, they can tell their supporters they did their best and then urge a debt-ceiling compromise for the good of the nation.
Talks on resolving the debt-ceiling impasse continue. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and his majority leader, Eric Cantor, R-Va., met secretly with President Barack Obama on Sunday. "We're making progress," Obama said Monday.
Separately, Senate leaders from both parties discussed the details of a possible deal. The emerging agreement would involve cutting spending, raising the debt limit in stages and setting up a powerful panel of lawmakers to recommend changes to Social Security, Medicare and other too-hot-to-handle issues.
The first of the conservative-backed votes is expected Tuesday in the House of Representatives on a GOP "cut, cap and balance" plan. It would cut $111 billion from fiscal 2012 spending and far more over 10 years. About three-fourths of the 2012 savings would come from non-security discretionary programs such as education and transportation; the rest would come from mandatory spending such as farm aid but wouldn't reduce Medicare, Social Security or veterans' benefits.
The plan would allow a debt limit increase only if Congress separately approves a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and sends it to the states, where three-quarters must approve it for it to take effect.
The Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass either the cut, cap and balance plan or the proposed amendment. The White House said Monday that it would veto the GOP plan if it did pass Congress. Press Secretary Jay Carney said the plan was "designed to duck, dodge and dismantle: Duck responsibility, dodge obligations and dismantle...social safety nets."
Boehner called the veto threat "unfortunate," adding: "If we are going to raise the debt limit and avoid default, the White House must be willing to demonstrate more courage than we have seen to date."
Later this week, Senate Republicans plan to push for a vote on the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Passage requires two-thirds majorities in each house, and is unlikely. The House hasn't scheduled a vote on the amendment yet.
Conservative activists are applying intense pressure. Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a group with ties to Karl Rove, the political guru of George W. Bush's presidency, launched ads Monday in 10 swing congressional districts urging people to press their representatives to get tough on spending and debt.
The Tea Party Patriots' Meckler has been working to mobilize his organization's 3,500 groups to make sure Congress knows they oppose raising the debt ceiling.
The groups "are calling their congressman, faxing, emailing," he said.
In another development, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., unveiled his own 619-page plan to cut $9 trillion from federal deficits over the next decade. It includes $962 billion in tax increases, achieved partly by ending tax breaks that Coburn called "special-interest giveaways." His plan isn't considered viable, but elements of it could survive in later packages.
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