WASHINGTON – For all the debt deal dynamics in Washington, a final agreement really comes down to a gang of four.
It's this quartet — Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in the House; Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the Senate — who will have to draw on their experience, skill and charm to find the deal and the votes to pass it for averting an unprecedented government default next week. It also has to be a deal that can get President Barack Obama's signature.
Deadline pressure is testing those abilities, and their tempers. McConnell complained that Reid had dropped a deal the pair had labored over after Obama balked.
Reid denied that. "I would say to my friend Mitch McConnell: Nice try, but don't blame this on the president."
In the collegial Senate, those are relatively terse words. But the stakes couldn't be higher, or the consequences darker for the fragile economy.
By all accounts, there is a measure of trust among the four congressional veterans. They've worked together before, in the 2008 financial crisis, for example.
A look at the four leaders.
The debt debate carries great weight in Boehner's young speakership, a test of how much trust and clout he commands in a Republican caucus in which a sizable group equates any compromise with failure. It's also the moment where Boehner stands to define himself on the global stage, the man second in line to the presidency who either can or cannot handle big disputes over economics and policy.
Boehner, 61, spent weeks exploring a compromise with a president 12 years his junior, sometimes in secret. But Boehner also walked away from those talks twice, very publicly.
To some degree, Boehner has positioned himself above the intemperate tussling of others in his caucus, including the handful of Republicans who think a government default on its financial obligations would be no big deal. He's dismissed any suggestion of a fight for primacy between himself and his ambitious second-in-command, Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
"We're in the foxhole" together, Boehner said earlier this month, throwing his arm around Cantor after a tense exchange between Obama and the Virginia Republican.
Boehner's affability figures in too. He works closely with McConnell and is regarded with affection by lawmakers of both parties. He may need the support of Democrats if the final deal is to pass the House.
At a recent event celebrating the speakership of Kentuckian Henry Clay, the moderator predicted that Pelosi would release some of her Democrats to vote for the final plan. She laughed, and the conversation came down to the House math that will determine the outcome — for the nation, and for Boehner.
"The speaker has all of my sympathy," Pelosi, a year ago speaker herself, offered.
"Yeah," he replied. But "do I get any votes?"
Some dethroned House speakers call it quits and depart for the peace of retirement. But Pelosi, the first woman to hold the speakership, chose instead to run for re-election as the House's top Democrat after leading her party to defeat in the 2010 elections.
She sees the debt debate as central to winning back control of the House in 2012 — and, perhaps, a measure of vindication.
Does Boehner — or Obama, for that matter — get Democratic votes for a deal, and how many? Depends, she says.
"If we're going to have to supply the votes, we're going to have to be at the table," she told The Associated Press.
Pelosi, 71, was cut out of the closed-door negotiations last spring over a budget for the rest of this fiscal year, when the House Republican majority was still young. On the pivotal evening when a deal was struck to avoid the first government shutdown in 15 years, she left town to deliver a speech in Boston. It was a stark distance from power for the woman who had muscled through Obama's signature health care overhaul.
She's a player now only because Boehner can't count on his 240-member caucus to deliver 217 votes to pass a deal. With little progress earlier this month, Pelosi felt free to give her president an ultimatum: House Democrats will not vote for any cuts to Medicare or Social Security benefits, including raising the eligibility age for the former and reducing annual cost of living increases for the latter.
Pelosi is the only one of the four leaders who has not issued her own proposal for the debt limit debate, throwing her support behind Reid's latest plan to raise the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion and to count winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as $1 trillion of an envisioned $2.7 trillion in spending cuts. It leaves the question of what to do about Social Security and Medicare benefits to the future.
Reid, also 71, worked with McConnell's idea to put the onus for raising the debt ceiling on Obama in three steps between now and the 2012 election. When that failed because of opposition from conservative Republicans as well as Democrats, he produced his own plan Monday — the $2.7 trillion package that would carry the president and members of both parties in Congress into 2013.
It would do so without any new revenues, thus meeting GOP demands for no new taxes, and avoid touching Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The White House lent its support despite Obama's earlier insistence on tax increases.
Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime Democratic operative and Nevada lobbyist, said that on major issues, Reid has "an endgame in his own head. ... Something very clear to him at the beginning of the issue." But if someone comes up with a new idea, "he's very receptive."
"He's not going to get there damaging core constituencies," Vassiliadis said.
Reid has delivered for the Democratic president, steering the president's massive health care overhaul through the Senate shoals.
The former boxer held his majority together through summer months of rancorous town halls and "death panels," dead-of-winter night votes and a period of sheer hopelessness for the White House and the party when Massachusetts voters picked a Republican for a Senate seat. After Democrats were shellacked at the polls last November, Reid helped Obama secure a nuclear arms treaty, repeal of the policy prohibiting gays from serving openly in the military and a tax deal.
Solving the seemingly intractable debt dispute has ramifications for Reid's slim Democratic majority in the Senate as well as Obama's bid for a second term.
In 2012, Democrats will be defending 22 seats and hoping to capture the independent seat in Connecticut. Republicans have only 10 seats to defend. Like Boehner, Reid has ambitious lieutenants who have eyes on his office space.
The Senate Republican caucus is a disparate group of freshmen tea partyers, staunch fiscal conservatives and a handful of moderates. McConnell largely has kept his rank and file in line, most notably on Obama's health care bill, as a few moderates flirted with the Democrats but then returned to the Republican fold.
Former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said McConnell delivered an early message to the GOP caucus at the start of Obama's tenure, when the president's approval ratings were close to a sky high 70 percent.
"He said: 'Let's not confront him frontally. The country won't like it,'" Bennett recalled.
Obama insisted he wanted to close the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that is used to hold terror suspects. Republicans and some congressional Democrats balked, fighting any effort to move the detainees to U.S. soil, and prevailed over the president.
"There are issues we can win on and what he picked was Guantanamo. The country as a whole did not want Guantanamo closed," Bennett recalled. McConnell "handed President Obama a loss. He picked his spots along the way and little by little you saw the president's ratings go down and Republicans go up. That's one of the ways he kept us altogether."
McConnell, 69, is a veteran of the Appropriations Committee, where deal-making is a common practice, but the debt crisis has tested his skills.
His recent debt proposal was reviled by House conservatives. The "Pontius Pilate" plan, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., called it. "Wash your hands and leave the table."
McConnell warned that if Republicans allowed the government to default, they would co-own the sputtering economy with Obama. The result, he said, would be a second term for Obama, the antithesis of McConnell's goal. "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," McConnell told the National Journal last year.
In 2012, the GOP has a clear shot at capturing the Senate, and McConnell could end up as the man in charge.
But McConnell has had an uneasy relationship with tea partyers. His candidate in Kentucky's GOP primary in 2010 was Secretary of State Trey Grayson, not upstart Rand Paul, who eventually won the nomination and the seat.
At the height of the fierce health care debate, when Obama traveled to the Capitol to meet with Senate Democrats during a rare weekend session, Reid and McConnell arranged for the GOP to temporarily preside over the Senate as a courtesy as Democrats gathered behind closed doors with the president.
Conservative bloggers excoriated McConnell and the GOP leadership for failing to act during their brief moments of power.