A tale of two deadlines

President Obama offered a status check on debt-reduction talks yesterday, and while he didn’t announce any breakthroughs, a couple of things jumped out.

What struck me as the most noteworthy were his comments about the process’ schedule. We are, after all, talking about a tale of two deadlines: one is August 2, when the nation loses its ability to pay its bills, while the other is the harder-to-define point at which policymakers have to strike a deal.

A month ago, Democrats and Republicans looked to have this worked out before the 4th of July. At a press conference on June 29, the president said he hoped to see “substantial progress” by the end of last week.

Yesterday, however, Obama pointed to a new schedule.

“What I know is that we need to come together over the next two weeks to reach a deal that reduces the deficit and upholds the full faith and credit of the United States government and the credit of the American people.”

Two weeks from yesterday is July 19 — which is also exactly two weeks before the far-less-flexible August 2 deadline. If a deal is in place by then, lawmakers would barely have time to debate, write, and vote on the agreement.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that cutting it this close is dangerous in its own right. A month ago, Moody’s Investors Service said the nation’s AAA credit rating is at risk of being downgraded by mid-July — before default — if it looks like failure is even a possibility. Would waiting until July 19 to craft a compromise — one that lawmakers may be tempted to oppose — risk serious economic consequences?

And all of this assumes a deal is, in fact, going to happen, which is far from a certainty.

The New York Times reports that the president and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) met secretly on Sunday in the hopes of advancing the talks, though it’s unclear if they made any progress. The Washington Post noted a tidbit I haven’t seen elsewhere, quoting a Republican aide saying the two sides have already agreed on “as much as $2.3 trillion in potential savings, including more than $300 billion in interest payments averted through lower borrowing.” If true, it would suggest a deal may be within reach, though it would still come down to Republicans’ willingness to accept additional revenue.

There will be a “summit” on Thursday at the White House in the hopes of keeping the process on track.

Tick tock.