With 11 days to go

President Obama spent much of the week in private talks with House Republican leaders, working on finding an agreement that would raise the debt ceiling, but last night, the president had a different task: persuading his own party’s congressional leaders that he’s on the right track.

Obama invited the top four congressional Dems — Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Dick Durbin, and Steny Hoyer — to the White House, and by all accounts, the group talked for about two hours, which as these meetings go, is quite a while. Ordinarily, after these sessions, lawmakers are willing to chat a bit with reporters, if only to share vague platitudes (“We’re continuing to make progress”), while their aides dish out tidbits. Last night, after the meeting, the Democratic leaders and their aides said absolutely nothing.

With that in mind, it’s worth pausing to appreciate a key caveat to all of the speculation surrounding this process: the number of people who have all the facts is exceedingly small, and those folks are pretty tightlipped. I mention this because some of the information that’s surfaced is very likely wrong, some is incomplete, and some has been twisted as part of a larger agenda. When weighing the validity of rumors, the phrase “caveat emptor” comes to mind.

That said, the reports that have surfaced — which, again, may not be entirely reliable — are so discouraging, one has to hope they’re wrong.

Those closest to the negotiations are sketching out a ridiculous picture: Republicans would get roughly $3 trillion in cuts over 10 years, including changes to entitlement programs, at the outset. Then, next year, Congress would take up an overhaul of the tax code, which would hopefully bring in some additional revenue.

This measure, in particular, is mind-blowing, if accurate:

[T]he president and Mr. Boehner were moving ahead with their plan, aides said, trying to agree on matters like how much new revenue would be raised, how much would go to deficit reduction, how much to lower tax rates and, perhaps most critical, how to enforce the requirement for new tax revenue through painful consequences for both parties should they be unable to overhaul the tax code in 2012.

The White House wants a trigger that would raise taxes on the wealthy; Mr. Boehner wants the potential penalty for inaction to include repeal of the Obama health care law’s mandate that all individuals purchase health insurance after 2014.

Got that? They’re talking about “trigger” that would kick in if tax-reform efforts falter next year, intended to provide an incentive for policymakers to follow through. For the White House, the trigger would be the expiration of Bush-era tax rates for the wealthy; for the Speaker, the trigger would the elimination of the individual mandate.

But that’s crazy. The White House’s idea of a trigger would happen anyway since the Bush-era rates are due to expire at the end of next year. Boehner’s idea has nothing to do with the budget process and wouldn’t actually save any money.

In the bigger picture, even having this “bargain” on the table is complicating an already-contentious process. The Senate was supposed to move forward, perhaps as early as tomorrow, on the McConnell/Reid “Plan B” compromise, which was up until recently the failsafe. Now “Plan B” is in jeopardy, in part because House Republicans don’t like it, and in part because the White House is focused on its far more ambitious agreement. The Senate, meanwhile, instead of working on Plan B, will probably defeat the House’s “Cut, Cap, and Balance” nonsense today, while still mulling over the Gang of Six plan.

The Aug. 2 deadline is 11 days away, and the House is taking the weekend off.

Here’s hoping this process comes into focus very soon, because right now, the fiasco appears to be turning into a farce.