With last-minute support from Maryland's Republicans, the House of Representatives narrowly approved a bill Friday to raise the nation's debt ceiling, but the high-stakes hunt for a bipartisan plan that could pass both chambers of Congress was set to continue into the weekend.
With just days remaining before Tuesday's deadline to raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit, the deficit-reduction plan championed by House Speaker John Boehner advanced with only Republican votes — and was quickly rebuffed by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Despite the continued political brinkmanship, there were signs that a path to ending the impasse was emerging.
"I still believe we'll get it done, but I think there is a significant risk that we won't," Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said in an interview, adding that he and other Democrats were negotiating with Republicans over a possible compromise. "I think each of us in the Senate, we have a chance to get that done."
In the House, Maryland's two Republicans — Reps. Andy Harris and Roscoe G. Bartlett — were among the last holdouts to throw their support behind Boehner's plan. After a flurry of 11th-hour meetings with party leaders, the conservative lawmakers said they ultimately won their prize: a proposed constitutional amendment that would require Washington to balance the federal budget.
"We've moved the bill a little bit closer to the solution," said Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who was one of the first GOP freshmen to tie his support for raising the debt ceiling to the proposed amendment. "I think the country's ready for a balanced-budget amendment. I think the average person thinks we really need it."
Harris said the amendment is crucial to convincing financial markets and credit rating agencies, such as Moody's and Standard & Poor's, that the government is serious about reducing its ballooning budget deficits. Without it, Harris is concerned the U.S. could lose its gold-plated credit status even if Congress approves a deal to avert the short-term crisis.
Separately, Harris adamantly denied recent reports that he withheld his support for the legislation because it included a proposed increase in Pell Grants for low-income college students. He questioned why Congress was increasing spending on the program in a bill intended to cut spending, but said that was not a determining factor in his vote.
Much of the negotiation over the House bill took place late Thursday, after Republicans pulled the measure off the House floor just minutes before the expected vote. As the evening wore on, recalcitrant Republicans paraded one-by-one into closed-door meetings with GOP leaders, dodging throngs of reporters staked out in the hallways.
Harris said he met Thursday with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to discuss the proposal — and reiterated his position on the budget amendment.
Bartlett, who in 20 years on Capitol Hill has never voted to raise the debt ceiling, was seen heading into Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy's office. Asked about the arm-twisting that took place in the meeting, Bartlett quipped: "I just went in to get some pizza."
Bartlett and other conservative Republicans emerged hours later with a much bigger reward. The Western Maryland lawmaker said the decision by Boehner and other Republican leaders to include the balanced budget amendment in the legislation was what ultimately flipped his vote from a 'no' to a 'yes.'
"That changed the thing hugely," Bartlett said. "I did not have an option this time to vote to raise the debt limit ceiling or not because it's going to be raised, the only question is whether it's raised by what I think is a bad bill, which is the Boehner bill … or a really bad bill."
While the effort may have made the legislation more attractive to fiscal conservatives, it also made it less relevant in Washington, where both President Barack Obama and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid have long argued that the House bill was dead on arrival.
The Boehner legislation would have provided a $900 billion increase in U.S. borrowing authority, enough to keep the government solvent through the end of the year. In exchange, the plan called for $917 billion in spending cuts.
Congress would need to agree to additional cuts to raise the ceiling through the end of 2012.
Hours after the House approved its bill, the Senate voted 59-41 to kill it.
"Now that the House has wasted several days on the work of passing this empty political gesture, it is time for serious action to prevent a disastrous default," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat.
Congress was expected to continue work over the weekend as the focus on the debt debate shifted to the Senate. Reid has backed a deficit-reduction plan that would cut $2.2 trillion over the next decade and extend the debt limit through the end of 2012. The final compromise could include some combination of the Reid and Boehner proposals.
If it passes the Senate, that measure would head back to the House, where it would need support from both Democrats and Republicans.
The latest political machinations in Washington came amid bleak economic news, including a report that the economy grew by a paltry 1.3 percent in the second quarter of this year. The stock market, meanwhile, posted its biggest weekly decline in a year and the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down for a sixth straight day.
Given its economic and geographic ties to the federal government, Maryland is likely to be disproportionately affected regardless of the outcome of the debt negotiations. More than 286,810 federal workers live in Maryland, census data show, and local companies were responsible for about $60 billion in federal contracts in 2010.
"I do think that we are cutting areas that are further than I would like to see cut," Cardin said. "I do think these cuts are manageable. We can do it. But it's not part of a balanced, comprehensive plan and that I find very, very disappointing."
In a televised address from the White House, Obama criticized the House plan but argued that Congress nevertheless was close to finding a path forward.
"This is not a situation where the two parties are miles apart," he said. "So there are plenty of ways out of this mess. But we are almost out of time."
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