* If deal is reached, leaders have tools for quick action
* Two key dates -- Aug. 2 and Aug. 5
* “Smelling the jet fumes”
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, July 28 (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress, known for moving painfully slowly, can kick into high gear when it is staring down a deadline important to the entire country -- or when lawmakers are approaching their cherished August recess.
Luckily for those who want to see Congress promptly raise the the United States’ borrowing limit after months of squabbling, both of those conditions are now in play.
Members of Congress have two key dates foremost in their minds right now: Aug. 2 and Aug. 5.
On Aug. 2, without an increase in the Treasury Department’s $14.3 trillion limit on borrowing, the federal government might not have enough money to pay all its bills.
On Aug. 5, the Senate and House of Representatives are scheduled to begin a monthlong summer recess. When a recess is around the corner, lawmakers are famous for cranking out legislation that has been stalled.
The running joke among journalists who cover Congress is that once lawmakers begin “smelling the jet fumes” of the airplanes that will spirit them to their recess destinations, legislation gets passed.
Even so, is there still time for Congress to pass something as complicated as a debt limit increase coupled with around $1 trillion or more in spending cuts?
“Once a deal gets worked out, things can move very quickly,” said one Senate Republican leadership aide, who asked not to be identified.
The aide added that such alacrity was last seen in April, when Democrats and Republicans, after weeks of battle, came to a late-night deal on short-term government spending cuts, thus averting a shutdown of federal agencies.
“People were negotiating up until the last minute, literally, then things moved ahead” with a major bill being passed by both chambers in lightning speed.
While tough procedural rules can slow down any bill in the day-to-day life of Congress, when it comes to emergency legislation or the onset of a recess, many of those rules are tossed out the window, assuming all the players are on board.
Leaders already have their eye on some legislative tricks that could speed progress.
For example, according to Democratic and Republican aides, if the House passes the Republican-backed bill, it could send it to the other side of Capitol Hill in the form of a message to the Senate instead of regular House-passed legislation.
A clerk from the House could walk down the center aisle of the Senate and proclaim the arrival of the “message.”
Under the rules, that message would leapfrog a potential stalling tactic opponents could otherwise use to slow it down. The Senate’s version of the debt bill would be inserted into the message, thus becoming legislation backed by the Democratic Senate majority.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who is in charge of moving legislation through the Senate, has already said he has the tools for quickly altering to his liking any House-passed bill.
This could happen on Thursday. If the Republican bill passes the House and is blocked in the Senate, as expected, negotiators will move into their end game mode -- searching for the “sweet spot” legislation with enough support to pass.
In the hours leading to the Aug. 2 deadline, Reid will have to watch out for any lone wolf senator trying to erect procedural hurdles.
But the old hands in the Senate are optimistic the work will get done.
Democratic Senator Max Baucus, with more than 30 years under his belt in the Senate, told Reuters: “We’ll get it done.”
“I think at the end of the day, there will be sufficient cooperation so a bill will pass that allows the debt limit to be lifted, with deficit reduction. That will then pass over in the House with both Democrats and Republicans voting for it,” Baucus confidently predicted. (Additional reporting by Donna Smith; editing by Jackie Frank)