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Endgame Begins In Debt Ceiling Talks

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. The debt debate standoff in Washington continues but the latest loop in this roller coaster offers some hope that the White House and Republicans in Congress could find a compromise that could pass in time and could avert default. Joining us now to talk about all this is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Optimism is in short supply in all this discussion, but why, other than the alternative being awful, do people think there might be a solution?

LIASSON: Well, who knows? It could still all blow up. But Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, decided not to hold a 1 A.M. vote on his bill and instead scheduled a vote on it for 1 P.M. So, that's a 12-hour delay. And that raised some people's votes because Reid said he was delaying the vote because negotiations were making some headway. The key players in this latest attempt to rescue the country from default are Senate minority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, and Vice President Joe Biden, the same two players who negotiated the deal that allowed the extension of the Bush tax cuts back in January.

WERTHEIMER: So, what do you know about the shape of this possible compromise?

LIASSON: Well, it would raise the debt ceiling in two steps, an additional $1 trillion in spending cuts, allow the debt ceiling to go up by one trillion. Then there would be a second batch of spending cuts - $1.6 trillion - decided on by the end of the year but yet another bipartisan commission. And the biggest sticking point is what the enforcement mechanism would be to ensure that there's a second batch of $1.6 trillion in cuts. What if the bipartisan commission doesn't come up with the cuts, which presumably would be a combination of domestic cuts, entitlement changes and tax reforms? What would happen? What would be triggered? We're back to the same divide that's been there all along. Does this enforcement mechanism trigger just spending cuts and changes in entitlements or does it also force tax increases, which the Democrats are still demanding as a condition of their support in which the president has said represents the kind of balanced plan he was insisting on.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this whole weekend has been an extraordinary spectacle in Washington. Who pays the political price for this?

LIASSON: Well, everyone pays the price. Certainly the president has been hurt. His approval ratings has been steadily slipping - part of that's the economy, which hasn't shown any signs of improvement, but the debt ceiling standoff is also taking a toll. And, of course, many Democrats believe that's exactly the reason Republicans are being so recalcitrant, because Democrats say Republicans' first and foremost goal is to hurt the president or weaken his hand in the negotiations. In the latest Gallup poll, the president's approval rating is down to 40 percent. The only consolation for the president, of course, is that the approval ratings of Congress are much, much worse - 18 percent.

WERTHEIMER: What kind of toll do you think the drama in the House is taking on John Boehner? Watching him trying to get control of his caucus has been one of the most compelling parts of this.

LIASSON: Yes. Compelling like a train wreck at some times, but just like the president's Speaker Boehner comes out of this a weakened leader. He went from trying to negotiate a grand bargain with the president to moving drastically to the right to get the debt ceiling bill through the House. And the deal he passed is so much farther from the center than the deal he was talking about with the president. Now, there's an open question if there's any kind of compromise bill he could actually pass through the House. There is a real risk to the speaker in becoming captive to the Tea Party base of his party. And don't forget, in order to get the support of enough Tea Party Republicans, he had to put a provision in that bill that Congress has to pass a balanced budget amendment before the debt ceiling could be raised - not just vote on it but pass it, and that takes two-thirds of both chambers of Congress. That means the debt ceiling will never be raised. Now that Boehner's in negotiations with the Senate and the White House on something that presumably could pass both houses and be signed by the president, his new bottom line seems to be that he needs to get a majority of his majority. He wants a majority of Republicans to vote for it. The first bill he passed on Friday only had Republican votes. That means he has to get the rest of the votes from Democrats. And we're back to the same old problem we talked about before, which is what will have to be in this compromise for Nancy Pelosi to help John Boehner get it passed. Even the very conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page weighed in about the behavior of House Republicans yesterday in an editorial, when it said, quote, "Republicans are not looking like adults to whom voters can entrust the government."

WERTHEIMER: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.