WASHINGTON-Do the right thing. That was President Barack Obama's message Sunday night after lawmakers announced a deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling and avoid the uncertainty of a default.
"I want to urge members of both parties to do the right thing and support this deal with your votes over the next few days," Obama said Sunday before reporters in the White House briefing room.
The comments capped a wild weekend in Washington as lawmakers struggled to come up with a solution to the government's spending problems before Tuesday's deadline.
On the debating floors of Congress, the weekend saw the Democratic-led Senate defeat a Republican-led House plan. Then the House turned around and defeated the Senate's debt plan. All this public political scheming provided many opportunities for lawmakers to air out their grievances during what made for good television melodrama. But the real action remained behind closed doors where congressional leaders from both parties hammered out the compromise.
Released Sunday night, this deal would cut $2.4 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years. It also extends the federal government's borrowing authority well beyond its current $14.3 trillion, and avoids any more debt-ceiling tension through the 2012 election.
Obama will get to raise the debt ceiling in three increments. While Congress will be able, under the plan, to take votes of disapproval on Obama's increases, lawmakers will not be able to block any of them without a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.
"We can assure the American people tonight that the United States of America will not for the first time in our history default on its obligations," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday night.
While Republican and Democratic leaders have now reached an agreement, the next challenge will be getting the support of rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties.
Already grassroots members of the Tea Party have lashed out against the compromise. The conservative movement is particularly concerned with proposed cuts to defense spending in the plan: more than a third of the initial $917 billion in cuts would come from security programs.
Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips said he doubts projected future spending cuts will ever happen. "John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have totally sold the Tea Party and the conservative movement out," he wrote in a blog post Sunday night. "We would be better off with Benedict Arnold and Alger Hiss in charge of the Republican Party."
House Speaker John Boehner admitted to House Republicans that it's not "the greatest deal in the world." But he told the GOP lawmakers on a conference call Sunday night that the deal "shows how much we've changed the terms of the debate in this town. There is nothing in this framework that violates our principles. It's all spending cuts."
The plan also provides for both the House and the Senate to vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Even though this will likely not receive the needed two-thirds vote for passage in each chamber, its inclusion in the compromise gives conservative lawmakers more reason to support the debt deal.
Already, freshmen Republicans are holding back any full-throated criticisms of this newest proposal. This marks a big change from last week when many new lawmakers fiercely resisted Boehner's initial attempts to pass an earlier version of the debt-ceiling increase.
"I am cautiously optimistic about this latest deal," said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich. "We know the consequences of failure are too high for America."
On the Democratic side, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is confident he has enough votes to secure passage. But House Democrats are not as optimistic. "We all may not be able to support it, or none us may be able to support it," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Sunday.
The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., was more critical, calling an early draft of the deal a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich."
Congressional leaders are planning to hold votes on the deal as soon as Monday night.
Beyond Washington, observers are hoping that the announcement of the deal will encourage a much-needed rally in the global stock market. Early indications on Monday are pointing to market gains. But even this good news does not guarantee that the United States will be able to keep its triple-A credit rating.