Senate Delays Vote on Debt Bill as 11th-Hour Talks Gain Ground

Washington – With the deadline for a debt limit increase inching perilously closer, Congress remained deadlocked Saturday over how to avoid a crisis as both houses spent the day publicly mired in often tart, even defiant partisan votes and rhetoric.

Privately, however, the White House was talking to leaders of both parties, and there appeared to be enough hope for an accord that a planned vote to cut off debate on a Democratic measure was abruptly postponed until Sunday.

“There are many elements to be finalized and there is still a distance to go before any arrangement can be completed,” House Majority Leader Harry Reid said Saturday night.

“But I believe we should give everyone as much room as possible to do their work.”

Reid, D-Nevada, said he had spoken to the White House “quite a few times this evening.”

The dramatic end to the Senate's long day capped hours of ups and downs as lawmakers and the White House worked to break the impasse over raising the nation's debt limit. Negotiators were stuck over how to increase the limit in stages.

The $14.3 trillion debt limit must be increased by Tuesday. If it isn't, it puts the federal government at risk of default, which could trigger panic in financial markets worldwide and perhaps plunge the U.S. economy back into recession.

Just four hours before Reid offered his cautious optimism late Saturday, he and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell dramatically illustrated the tension, and the high stakes, with an unusually sharp, personal clash over the outlook for compromise.

“The process has not been moved forward during this day,” Reid said after he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., met with President Barack Obama for nearly 90 minutes.

But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio told a news conference he was “confident that we're going to be able to come to some agreement with the White House and end this impasse.”

And McConnell said that he spoke to Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday afternoon, and added that “we are now fully engaged, the speaker and I,” with Obama. “Our country is not going to default for the first time in history,” added McConnell, R-Kentucky. “We have now, I think, a level of seriousness with the right people at the table we needed…. We're going to get a result.”

Reid, with fellow senators huddling around him, standing and watching intently, took to the Senate floor to dispute McConnell's account with a harsh tone rarely used to discuss the opposition's tactics in the genteel Senate.

Reports a deal could be close are “not true,” Reid said.

With McConnell standing a few feet away, Reid charged the GOP leaders were “holding meaningless press conferences.”

And, Reid said, “I just spent two hours with the president, the vice president and the agreement is not (coming together) in a meaningful way. The Republicans still refuse to negotiate in good faith.”

McConnell swung back, saying, “I think we've got a chance of getting there. What I think is not helpful is the process we're going through here on the Senate floor.”

Earlier Saturday, the Republican-run House of Representatives voted 246 to 173 to reject a new Reid plan that would reduce deficits by more than $2.2 trillion over 10 years and raise the debt limit in three stages.

The Senate debated the Reid proposal throughout the day Saturday, and will vote Sunday afternoon on whether to cut off extended debate. Sixty votes are needed.

But even though McConnell originally proposed the three-stage plan to raise the debt limit, he wouldn't back Reid's measure. A spokesman said that McConnell had never liked the plan but offered it as a last resort.

As the Senate opened for business Saturday afternoon, McConnell and Reid, veteran senators usually measured in their public comments, engaged in the day's first war of words over the proposal.

“This bill has one goal: to get the president through his next election without having to have another national debate about the consequences of his policies…” McConnell charged. “It isn't going anywhere.”

McConnell had strong GOP support. The 43 Republican senators sent Reid a letter saying, “The plan you have proposed would not alter the spending trajectory that is putting our economy and national security at risk.”

Reid fought back. “We're dealing here with reality, not a world of fantasy,” he said, “and the reality is the (time) is fast approaching where we have to raise” the debt limit.

But with the clock ticking on the debt-limit deadline, lawmakers were privately scrambling for an agreement. Some Republicans said they could probably accept some version of the Reid plan, and senators from both parties were trying to craft bipartisan deals.

The proposal would allow Obama to increase the debt limit by $2.4 trillion in three steps. The first increase of $416 billion, presumably enough to last through September, would come immediately. The next increase of $784 billion would go into effect unless Congress disapproved.

The final amount, $1.2 trillion, would probably be considered early next year, and would also go into effect unless Congress rejected it.

Congressional rejection is considered highly unlikely, because if Congress voted against an increase Obama would probably veto it. Since two-thirds majorities of each house are needed to override a veto, and Democrats control 53 of 100 Senate seats and 193 of the House's 435 seats, Obama would probably prevail. The debt limit increases would not be tied to deficit reduction.

Reid's plan is similar to the one adopted by the House on Friday. Both plans would cut about $750 billion over 10 years in discretionary spending, such as education and transportation programs that Congress can more easily control.

Neither includes any tax increases, and both would set up 12-member joint legislative committees to consider further spending cuts. Under the House plan, the committee's target is $1.8 trillion over 10 years; under the Reid plan, the goal would be to reduce the deficit to 3 percent or less of the gross domestic product.

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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