The House of Representatives was halfway through the debate on the "Cut, Cap, and Balance Act" when Democratic contempt finally bubbled over. The microphone went to Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., a former judge whose past and present legal problems are so complicated that he's usually just referred to as "colorful." "Do you genuinely believe this measure is going to become law?" asked Hastings.
"I genuinely hope it does," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, its sponsor. As he ticked off its benefits—spending caps, freezes, a balanced budget enshrined in the Constitution— Hastings interrupted him.
"I bet you cash money that it ain't gonna become the law," Hastings said. As Chaffetz started to joke about his discomfort with cash bets, a bored Hastings simply left the chamber.
Thirteen days before the U.S. Treasury says it will be unable to pay its bills, House Republicans were debating—and debating, and debating—a plan that could never pass the Senate. Meanwhile, senators were talking up an alternative debt plan, one that had been cooked up over six months by three Democrats and three Republicans. To varying degrees, all the senators were worried about the same question: What were they supposed to do about the House?
On Tuesday, the two chambers felt impossibly far apart. The events in either house might as well have been happening in different screenplays. The Senate's morning began when Tom Coburn, the conservative who'd left the alternate-budget-drafting Gang of Six, made a triumphant return. He signed back up with the Gang and briefed 50 senators on what they'd come up with. Senators leaving the meeting sounded like pilgrims returning from Lourdes. "We went from a gang of six to a mob of 60!" beamed Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va. The president all but endorsed the plan thereafter.
It was difficult to find senators who weren't optimistic. What was in the plan? It was hard to say. The Gang would cut $3.7 trillion over the long term by reforming entitlements and slashing discretionary spending. What sort of slashing could we look forward to? That would be left largely up to committees. The Gang would end the alternative minimum tax and flatten the tax code—fewer breaks, lower rates, but with the goal of increasing revenue.
Senators loved it. "This is an achievement of statesmanship," Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said. "We ought to declare victory, get it ready to vote on, and try to form some sort of supermajority critical mass and save the day."
The Gang's plan looked like it bumped up against another Republican plan. For weeks, Republicans in both houses had been coalescing around the "Cut, Cap, and Balance" bill. When they put their names on it, they'd pledged not to raise the debt ceiling without those specific cuts and caps, and without the passage of a balanced budget amendment. I asked Sen. Lamar Alexander, who's both in the Republican leadership and a co-sponsor of the "Cut, Cap and Balance" bill, how he could support the Gang's plan, too.