With 12 days to go

A few weeks ago, White House officials told congressional leaders that waiting to the last minute, or even the last week, for a debt-ceiling agreement wasn’t a viable option. The cutoff date — the date circled on the calendar as the day a deal must be complete in order to meet the deadline — was July 22.

Today is July 21. By all accounts, the relevant players still aren’t close.

That said, there’s at least a flurry of activity — it’s preferable to stone silence — and the possibility of moving the Aug. 2 deadline, at least a little, to accommodate a larger compromise.

The contentious budget talks that have dominated Washington for months intensified Wednesday, prompting President Obama to say he would accept a short-term hike in the debt ceiling if it gave lawmakers time to finalize a comprehensive deal.

Obama had pledged to veto any short-term measure, but White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the president could accept an extension of “a few days” if it allowed a long-term deficit-reduction and debt-ceiling deal to work its way through Congress.

Fine, but what are the odds of crafting an agreement? The winds seem to shift direction every day, even within the day, and the so-called “Grand Bargain” that was scrapped last week was placed back on the table yesterday after a meeting between President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

The conventional wisdom suggests a combination of factors have made the possibility of a compromise more likely. The Gang of Six’s plan was relatively well received in the Senate; the House got “Cut, Cap, & Balance” out of its system; Republicans aren’t encouraged by polls showing them losing the public; and the McConnell/Reid “Plan B” fallback option would apparently offer a solution that would pass the Senate without too much trouble. All of this, the argument goes, has led to “new cracks” in the House Republicans’ iron wall.

For what it’s worth, I’m deeply skeptical that the conventional wisdom is right. House Republicans are still House Republicans, and they’re becoming more intransigent, not less. A Fox News report last night said Rep. Joe Walsh’s (R-Ill.) Suicide Squad (my phrase, not his) has “close to 90” members, which is nearly double the number Senate Republican leaders had hoped for.

With this in mind, there doesn’t appear to be serious alternative that can pass the House. The chamber’s Republicans don’t want a clean bill; don’t want the Grand Bargain; don’t want the Gang of Six’s framework; and don’t want Plan B. The one hurdle remains the same: the House GOP won’t accept a penny of additional revenue from anyone at any time.

And at this point, no one — not even their own leadership — knows how to satisfy the radicals.

It’s reached the point at which Wall Street and the Federal Reserve are actively involved in crafting contingency plans, in case House Republicans really are as stupid as feared.

Tick tock.