With 15 days to go

This morning, Time‘s Jay Newton-Small explained the state of play well: “Washington’s debt ceiling talks have entered a new and desperate phase. With two weeks to go until the U.S. begins to cut government services to avoid defaulting on its credit obligations, negotiators are farther apart on a plan to stem the nation’s deficits than they have ever been.”

That’s plainly true. It’s also why talk of optimism on the Sunday shows yesterday seemed to misplaced.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, proclaimed, “The country will not default.” There was a lot of that going around.

Top Republican lawmakers and the Obama administration’s budget director predicted Sunday that an agreement would be reached before the federal government defaults on its debt in early August, but both sides continued to squabble over the details of competing proposals, offering little evidence that a deal was at hand.

“I do not believe that responsible leaders in Washington will force this to default,” Jacob J. Lew, the White House budget office chief said on the ABC News program “This Week.” “All of the leaders of Congress and the president have acknowledged that we must raise the debt limit. And the question is how.”

I don’t doubt that officials who’ve been at the negotiating table know more about the prospects for success than I do, but I haven’t the foggiest idea how any of them can feel optimistic right now. Indeed, the Aug. 2 deadline is two weeks from tomorrow, and much of the chatter on the Sunday shows was devoted to different policymakers floating different solutions, none of which appear viable. We should be well past this point by now, but we’re not.

That said, behind-the-scenes talks continued yesterday, and the focus on the McConnell/Reid “Plan B” was reportedly intensifying.

One thing to keep in mind is Senate procedural hurdles. By all accounts, there’s some momentum for the McConnell/Reid compromise, which would probably have enough support to pass the chamber. But managing the clock will be tricky — Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), among other right-wing members, has already said he’ll filibuster the agreement. Ordinarily, the question is whether the majority can put together 60 votes. In this case, the 60 votes will probably be there, but the calendar becomes the central problem — given the far-right delaying tactics, it could take a full week for the Senate to consider, debate, and vote on the deal. With the clock ticking, the specific provisions of the agreement would have to come together very soon, if for no other reason, to start the clock on the burdensome Senate process.

In the meantime, there’s at least a possibility that literally no solution can assemble 218 votes in the House — there are simply too many right-wing Republicans in the chamber with an allergy to reason — in which case, we’re all royally screwed.