There are now only a handful of possible outcomes of the debt ceiling standoff in Washington. We'll get to them all in a minute in more detail. One way or another, it's a pretty safe bet that the issue will (at least temporarily) be resolved by the fifth of August, at the absolute latest. Bank on it. The reason for such certainty is a simple one: if the debate goes on in any way past that date, then it will start to cut into Congress' month-long summer vacation. Which is (as any observer of American politics should know full well) the one unthinkable bridge-too-far in Washington. Because Congress' vacations are sacred... at least, to them.
If the debate goes on past the second of August, it likely will already be cutting into planned congressional vacation time. It's hard to tell, since they don't like to brag about this stuff, but the House web page's last scheduled item until September is on August 3rd. The Senate's calendar just chalks in August 8th through September 5th with the euphemism "State work period." This doesn't preclude them all from going home for their month of vacation immediately after the debt ceiling vote earlier next week, however. But let's generously assume they'll be working all of next week, which puts the real deadline for Congress to act in one fashion or another the fifth of August.
One of about five outcomes will, by then, have happened. Boehner's bill (or whatever shreds of it are left) could become law. Reid's bill (whatever remains of it) could become law. Congress could go right up to the limit, and then pass a short-term extension of a "clean" rise in the debt ceiling that Obama reluctantly signs. Everything could collapse, and Congress doesn't pass anything -- which leads to the last two possible outcomes: President Obama rides in at the last minute wielding the Fourteenth Amendment and declares the debt ceiling to be unconstitutional, and therefore null and void; or, we default on our debt and our credit rating is downgraded.
If either Boehner's bill or Reid's bill -- or some combination of the two -- makes it through at the last minute, then Congress will go home for a month (breathing a sigh of relief). If Congress passes a clean debt ceiling bill, it will push the problem off for a minimum of two months. The first month, of course, will be their vacation time. The second month will be a repeat of the past month. If Obama is boldly presidential in upholding the plain language of the Constitution, then Republicans are going to have a "14th nervous breakdown" (to coin a phrase). They will spend their monthlong vacation howling about Obama's action, and the House Republicans will immediately (after the vacation month ends, of course) begin impeachment proceedings against him. This will become one of the dominant issues in the election campaign, to put it mildly.
Of course, if all the negotiating and legislative posturing collapses, and we do default (or are downgraded), then Congress could actually have to forego some precious vacation time. Which means this option is the least likely to actually happen. There are many ways it could happen, but the assumption is that if it got close to falling apart completely that a clean bill would have to be rushed through at the absolute last minute. After all, they all have a flight to catch.
If John Boehner can't even manage that in his contentious House, then America defaults and economic calamity begins. If we do get to this point, one thing is going to become glaringly apparent to the American public: Congress takes an obscene and shameful amount of vacation time. For the most part, the public never really thinks about it, and the media rarely points it out. But the fact is, Congress is about to take another month off. For the first six months of this year, the House of Representatives was on vacation a total (not even counting official holidays) of over nine weeks, and the Senate took almost ten full weeks off. And that's before you add in July, or the four weeks they're about to award themselves.
Politically, Congress would have to stay in session if the economy was collapsing around us. Obama would demand Congress stay until the work was done, and the American people would back him up with a roar. The portion of the working public who gets to take twenty weeks off (paid, of course) every year is, to be blunt, non-existent. Congress' normal "August recess" would become the main story, if they foolishly chose to actually go home after such a fiasco.
Which is why I, for one, know that by the end of next Friday, Congress will have passed something or another which President Obama will sign. I have no idea what it'll be, but the alternative for the Congresscritters is so unthinkable -- having to actually work during August in the Washington miasmic heat -- that I know that something is going to get done. Call me cynical, but it's almost always a winning bet that Congress -- under no circumstances -- ever cuts back on its own vacation time. By the end of next week, at the absolute latest, Congress will act. And then they'll fly back home to enjoy their summer vacation, as usual.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant