Harry Reid, in a press conference, warned that the ballyhooed Gang of Six proposal, which popped up today with a two-page outline, was too unformed to become a solution to the debt limit increase in the short time left to avoid a default.

Reid said that Doug Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, told him that the Gang of Six plan, which includes broad outlines and caps rather than legislative language at this point, would take at least two weeks to score. That would push the time frame beyond the August 2 deadline. Specifically, Reid said:

There’s no legislative language and understand before we start passing a bill out of the senate it has to start in the House because of the heavy revenue in the bill. So the house would have to start this, but as I indicated in the caucus this morning, if there’s a way in the next few days we can impove upon some of the legislation we’re talking about doing, I’m happy to take elements of the gang of 6 and work with them to get that done.

Reid concluded that he didn’t want to “jeopardize the enthusiasm” among some in both parties for the Gang of Six, but he didn’t see a way to turn a two-page outline into legislative language, and have it pass both houses, in 13 days. The fact that the House would have to originate the bill, a bill the Republicans over there probably don’t like because it raises revenue, is crucial as well, though that hurdle could be overcome by using a shell bill.

Reid was just talking practically about the mechanics of passing legislation in divided government. But it was the reaction from those who favor the Gang of Six approach that should trouble people. Dick Durbin seemed to bow to reality that there isn’t enough time for passage, but Republicans seemed more insistent that it become a part of the talks:

But wide swaths of both parties seem prepared to get the plan passed as quickly as possible. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the Senate’s number three Republican threw his weight behind it. And opinions varied across both caucuses about how to take most swiftly take action on it. Gang of Six member Dick Durbin (D-IL) acknowledged that the Senate is too short on time to pass it before the country defaults. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) said Obama should agree to a short term extension of the borrowing limit to give Congress enough time to pass the plan in both chambers.

Now you will see 100 Senators with 100 different ideas on the way forward, with two weeks left. There will be a Richard Burr faction, wanting a short-term increase. There will be a Susan Collins faction, wanting the Gang of Six proposal appended to McConnell-Reid, even though that’s logistically impossible. There will be some, like Reid and Durbin, who will prefer to wait. There will be some on both sides, from Bernie Sanders on the left to Jim DeMint on the right, who will want no part of the Gang of Six, for different reasons. This leaves little space for an agreement, and the more alternatives, the less space, increasing the likelihood of default.

Mark Warner plans to meet with Reid to try and incorporate parts of the Gang of Six into McConnell-Reid, which may be the only alternative at this point. But there should be another one: open up the debate and let the American public have a role in deciding. You can do that through a clean debt limit increase and an accountability moment in the 2012 elections.

In effect, McConnell has offered Obama a clean debt ceiling increase on condition that he lay out a clear governing agenda to be ratified or rejected by the voters in 2012. The plan isn’t perfect — one important change would be to allow for tax changes as well as spending in the president’s recommendations. A lot of spending is disguised through the tax code. But even more important, Obama should be allowed to lay out his agenda — which presumably includes revenue increases — so the public can debate it.

This is a crucial opportunity for each party to make its case why it deserves to win the majority and enact its agenda. The resulting public debate would challenge each party in a way that can only enrich our democracy […]

We desperately need a vigorous debate within both parties, as well as between them. Perhaps the Republicans can lay out a clear agenda for a society without government — where you are truly on your own, sink or swim. Perhaps Democrats can make the argument for a strong social safety net, an equity society and higher taxes on the wealthy.

Without such a debate, our political atmosphere will turn even more poisonous — as we’ve seen when the public is denied a role in public policymaking.

That’s certainly what it feels like when this Gang of Six gets airdropped into the debate with two weeks to go.

David Dayen

David Dayen