State delegation waiting in the wings while debt talks go on

WASHINGTON–Freshman Sen. Richard Blumenthal concedes he’s not the “linchpin” to resolving the partisan standoff between Congressional Republicans and the White House over raising the debt ceiling.

Nonetheless, Blumenthal said he’s happy to clear his schedule of Connecticut meetings and events next week to stay in Washington, as the Senate cancelled its week-long 4th of July recess to double-down on the debt talks.

Like most other rank-and-file lawmakers, Connecticut’s congressional delegation wasn’t invited to the first round of debt-reduction talks led by Vice President Joe Biden, which collapsed earlier this month amid GOP opposition to tax increases. And they probably won’t be at the table this coming week either, as President Barack Obama seeks to move the discussions forward. If and when negotiations get back underway, only a handful of top leaders will be in the room.

So Blumenthal and others are trying to influence the debate from the sidelines-and watching white-knuckled as the two parties tangle and the clock ticks down to Aug. 2. That’s the deadline for Congress to raise the nation’s borrowing cap, now set at just under $14.3 trillion. If lawmakers don’t act, Treasury officials have said the U.S. could default on some of its financial obligations, which would wreak economic havoc.

“We’ve got almost exactly four weeks before the Aug. 2 deadline,” said Rep. Jim Himes, a 4th District Democrat who has been vocal about the market risks involved in pushing the fiscal talks too close to that August brink. “This is really serious.”

So serious that the Senate’s leaders agreed to scratch the chamber’s scheduled break-the first time they’ve done so since the Watergate crisis-to stay in Washington despite the scheduled holiday. No matter that at most, only a half-dozen lawmakers will be charged with crafting a deal-if they can come up with one at all.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said at a news conference Thursday that he’s had some senators “quietly say to me, ‘Do we really have to be here?'”

But the optics of a Senate in recess, chamber doors shuttered and lawmakers out of town, as the debt deadline inches closer could be politically disastrous.  And Reid said he wasn’t asking all 100 senators to stick around just for show, laying out a busy schedule for his colleagues next week.

The Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad will unveil the Democrats 2012 spending blueprint on Tuesday, he said, and Senate Democrats have asked to meet with the president and vice president on Wednesday. And the White House’s top economic advisor will brief the caucus on Thursday.

“The full caucus has to be involved,” Reid said.

Blumenthal, for one, said he wasn’t among those complaining about the sudden schedule change.

“I’ve got … between 7 and 10 events we’re now in the process of canceling,” he said. But “I think we need to be here. If there’s a chance of 1 in 100 that we can help, the consequences are so huge and failure would be so catastrophic, that we should be on hand.”

And even if they’re not writing the deal themselves, Connecticut lawmakers say they still have levers of influence on its final form.

“I’m not Mitch McConnell,” said Himes, referring to the Senate’s top Republican. “But I’m doing what I can.”

Himes said his main entrée into the negotiations so far has been private discussions with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and the House Democrats’ point-man in the Biden talks. Those were the main venue for debt negotiations until last week, when Republicans walked out of those discussions because Democrats refused to take tax increases off the table as part of a far-reaching deal that raises the debt ceiling, cuts spending, and enacts other fiscal reforms.

“Early on I urged Chris to be fairly aggressive about the $800 billion that we spend on defense and security,” Himes said. “We can’t be shy about cuts anywhere… and I was very involved with Chris before the meetings in working that through.”

Himes said he’s also tried, more broadly, to use his expertise as a former Goldman Sachs investment banker to highlight the implications if Congress doesn’t act to raise the debt ceiling and instead lets the government default. “I’ve just tried to be a voice that’s consistent with the hundreds of economists in saying ‘Yes, let’s do the hard work [on fiscal reform], but let’s stop the clowning with the debt ceiling’.”

House Democrats have the least leverage as the debate unfolds, with Senate Democrats and House Republicans driving the conversations with the White House.

“We’d always like to be in the room… and when you’re not, it goes beyond being frustrating,” said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, who is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. What’s most irksome, he added, is that at some point, the White House is probably going to come ask for House Democratic votes on the deal.

So even if Larson and others don’t have any high-level debt meetings on their schedule next week, he said they will be focused on this “500 pound gorilla in the room” and on making sure that the House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is involved in the negotiations.

Without that role, Larson said he’s concerned about what might be “negotiated away,” such as spending on domestic programs or other Democratic priorities.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, is trying to get something negotiated into the deal. He held a news conference on Tuesday outlining his Medicare reform proposal, just as the debt negotiations appeared to hit a new roadblock when Obama failed to make headway in fresh talks with Senate leaders. Lieberman touted his plan, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, as a “bipartisan beachhead” that could help break the gridlock.

That gridlock, Lieberman added, was really getting to him and others who are not directly involved in the closed-door deal-making. “I tell you, I find that a lot of our colleagues–I hate to use the word depressed. I don’t mean it in a clinical way–but they’re downcast,” Lieberman said at his Tuesday press conference. “They’re really downcast about the failure of the process here as we head toward the debt-ceiling vote.”

Lieberman will have to cut short a scheduled trip to the Middle East next week, so he can be back in Washington for the Senate session. But a spokeswoman said he was glad to have a fresh chance to lobby his colleagues to support his Medicare overhaul plan. And if, as Lieberman hopes, there’s a “renewed commitment” to address the debt crisis, maybe the mood in Washington will turn around.

Himes said he wasn’t too down-and-out, believing that more progress is being made than the barbed back-and-forth exchanges suggest.

“I will tell you that both parties are significantly more uncompromising and strident in public than they are in private,” Himes said.

All the same, rumors are flying about what’s been agreed to and what hasn’t, what might still be on the table and what’s not. And lobbying groups-from the American Medical Association to major businesses and labor groups-are fighting for and fretting over various proposals that might, or might not, be part of any grand bargain.

Blumenthal conceded that not being in the room makes him anxious about how this high-stakes, high-level deal will unfold. He, too, is trying to sway the final package, by calling for the elimination of special interest tax breaks-a major Democratic talking point-both publicly and in private talks with his colleagues.

Still, “I’m deeply concerned and troubled about the potential cuts to programs that are essential to our seniors, our children … and especially that breaks for the wealthy or well-connected will be preserved at the expense of our middle class and working families,” he said. “But, I’ve made my views known.”