The worst kept secret in Washington these days is that the United States government is rapidly approaching its debt ceiling limit of $14.3 trillion and time is running rapidly short. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have advanced a myriad of possible approaches to address the debt ceiling cut overall spending.
Most notable is the work being done by the "Gang of Six," a bipartisan group of senators working to craft a compromise that can garner enough votes to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate and the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. Their efforts, however, have fizzled or at least taken a back seat in recent weeks. While "Gang" lawmakers have broad agreement on most issues, they remain far apart on others.
Enter Vice President Joe Biden. At the request of President Barack Obama, Biden gathered a his own bipartisan group of legislators for a two-hour discussion at Blair House last week in the hopes of coming to agreement on ways to handle the debt ceiling and the debt itself. This is not the first time Biden has reached out to Congressional leaders seeking a compromise. But with the debt ceiling deadline approaching on August 2, this effort may be the most critical.
Biden was joined at the session by Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Arizona Senator John Kyl as well as four Democrats: Senate Appropriation Committee Chairman Daniel Innouye of Hawaii, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and other administration officials joined the talks.
Biden opened the talks saying the primary purpose of the first meeting was to "make sure each of us understands where the other guy is coming from." Although Biden said he was optimistic, administration officials said expectations for the group to arrive at a quick, tidy agreement were premature.
Lawmakers emerged from the session positive, if not decidedly upbeat. "I do think there are areas in which we can find some commonality," Cantor said. "The spirit of the meeting was that [Democrats] understood where we were coming from, and understood that you cannot sustain a scenario in which the government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends."
Rep. Clyburn of South Carolina indicated Democrats conceded that all cuts were on the table for consideration, including changes to Medicare and Social Security.
The ability of this group to craft a comprehensive agreement remains to be seen. There are 529 other lawmakers who will need to weigh in on any blueprint that emerges from these negotiations. And certainly, the most contentious issues will require bipartisan compromise and deft stewardship from Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. But, at least for now, they're talking.