With 64 hours to go

With so little time remaining before Tuesday’s deadline, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would have preferred to hold an overnight vote on his very generous offer to Republicans. That plan was scrapped last night, however, with Reid announcing he would reconvene the Senate this afternoon, eyeing a vote around 1 p.m. eastern.

This wasn’t necessarily a discouraging move. The Majority Leader’s conservative plan was unlikely to overcome a Republican filibuster, and by delaying the process by 12 hours, Reid said he hoped to give negotiators at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue a little more time to reach a bipartisan agreement.

According to multiple accounts from a variety of news outlets, a basic outline is taking shape. I wouldn’t, by the way, recommend reading this with breakfast.

The emerging agreement calls for raising the $14.3 trillion debt limit by up to $2.4 trillion in two stages, with the debt limit rising unless two-thirds of both chambers of Congress disapprove, according to officials in both parties familiar with the talks. That would extend the Treasury’s borrowing authority into 2013, satisfying President Obama’s demand to avoid another showdown over the issue in the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign.

The first stage would pair an increase of roughly $1 trillion with cuts to government agencies of about the same magnitude over the next decade. In the second stage, a special congressional committee would be created to identify additional savings later this year. The size of those savings would dictate the size of the second debt-limit increase, giving Republicans the dollar-for-dollar matchup they have demanded between spending cuts and the debt-limit increase.

The focus of talks Saturday was a mechanism to force the committee to act and to ensure that Congress adopts its recommendations. Late Saturday, McConnell and Biden appeared to have settled on a trigger that would cut most government spending — including the defense budget and Medicare — by as much as 4 percent if the committee failed to produce a plan to tame the spiraling national debt, the officials said.

Given how this process has unfolded in recent months, I’d recommend caution against reacting too strongly to any blueprint attributed to unnamed sources. We’ve seen several bogus leaks before, and we don’t know who’s leaking and why.

That said, if this is the general framework of the crisis-averting deal, it’s a bit of a disaster. The number of major concessions Republicans would be asked to make in this agreement is practically zero.

As for the details of the “trigger” (or, “enforcement mechanism”), note that Democratic demands for at least the possibility of new revenue would again be ignored. GOP officials would have some incentive in the next round of talks, however, if significant Pentagon cuts were the potential consequence of failure.

We should know more soon, but as the political world ponders the trial balloon, keep an eye on (a) how many Senate Democrats balk and say this goes go too far; (b) whether Speaker Boehner, who’s been largely silent on this, weighs in at all; (c) the number of House Dems, many of whom will be needed to pass a deal, who reject the plan; and (d) whether it includes anything in the form of economic “sweeteners,” most notably an extension of the payroll tax cut.