WASHINGTON — Congress plans two largely symbolic but politically significant votes starting today 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 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.
"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.
The coming two votes are significant for a couple of 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."
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 other 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-backed 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 Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., met with President 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.