WASHINGTON — The search is on for the political center of gravity in Congress.
As congressional leaders and the White House work to strike a deficit reduction deal, the debate behind the scenes is not over how to cut trillions of dollars in spending, but rather what combination of proposals will deliver the votes needed to pass Congress.
Negotiators are finding that in today's Congress — particularly in the House — almost any move that attracts one group of votes repels others.
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have pushed for a big package, a "grand bargain" that would reduce long-term deficits by $4 trillion or more over a decade. They believe that a package of historic dimensions might be easier for some members to support than a smaller deal.
But as congressional leaders tested that proposition Friday, they found obstacles at nearly every turn.
On the conservative flank, Boehner is likely to lose dozens of Republicans who will not vote for any deal.
On the political left, liberals have indicated the entire Congressional Progressive Caucus — one-third of all House Democrats — would reject a large package that cuts deeply into the federal safety net. Factions in the Senate are similarly divided.
That leaves only 300 or fewer House members — Democrats and Republicans — who conceivably might support a deal, and negotiators must win over almost four out of five among them.
"It's not like there's (an) imminent deal about to happen," Boehner said Friday. "I don't think this problem," he said, holding his hands wide apart, "has narrowed at all in the last several days."
Democratic leaders also privately expressed skepticism a large deal could be reached in the few weeks remaining. Redoubling their effort, House leaders cancelled a planned recess the week of July 18.
Negotiators will work through the weekend to craft a compromise. Congressional leaders will attend a rare Sunday meeting with Obama to see if they have the makings of a deal. Congress faces an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt limit or the risk a default on federal obligations.
Obama has appealed to lawmakers to "do something big." A similar appeal is being used by GOP leaders to nudge their reluctant rank-and-file.