Washington – After a 24-hour delay and concessions to conservatives, the House on Friday narrowly approved a Republican fiscal plan that the Senate quickly rejected in a standoff over the federal debt ceiling that was keeping the government on a path to potential default.
Despite a day of frenzied legislative maneuvering and another attempt by President Obama to rally public opinion behind some kind of compromise, the two parties made no visible progress in finding common ground, leaving Washington, Wall Street and much of the nation watching the clock toward a deadline of midnight Tuesday.
Demonstrating the deep partisan divide coloring the budget fight, the House voted 218 to 210 to approve the plan endorsed by Speaker John A. Boehner to increase the federal debt ceiling in two stages. No Democrats supported the measure; 22 Republicans opposed it. The White House condemned it as a “political exercise.”
“To the American people, I would say we tried our level best,” Mr. Boehner said as he concluded a debate that had been abruptly halted Thursday evening when he fell short of the votes for victory. “We tried to do our best for our country, but some people still say no.”
The House vote was the first act of what loomed as a weekend of tense legislative gamesmanship on Capitol Hill. With Congressional leaders still unable to reach agreement, anxious lawmakers, aides and administration officials seemed to hold their breath, hoping that some compromise could mesh the competing proposals and rise above the increasingly confrontational tactics in Washington.
Aides and lawmakers said back-channel talks across the aisle were not making much progress in the Senate, but they hoped the pace would pick up after the Senate rejection of the House proposal.
That did not take long. Two hours after the House approved its plan, it was convincingly tabled in the Senate by a vote of 59 to 41, and Democrats took steps to move ahead with their proposal.
In an effort to attract some Republican support for his plan, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, made a number of changes in his bill. But the Congressional Budget Office found that the overall impact on the deficit was about the same as with his original bill: savings of $2.2 trillion over 10 years.
House Republicans, stung by their inability on Thursday to secure enough votes from conservatives for their own plan to raise the debt ceiling, reconfigured their proposal to win over the holdouts.
The revised plan would raise the debt ceiling for about six months in exchange for $1 trillion in spending cuts. A second installment of $1.6 trillion — expected to be needed in about six months — would hinge on Congressional approval of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, a provision added Friday to lure conservatives.
But the revisions only made the measure less acceptable to Senate Democrats, who had made it clear that they would reject the bill as soon as it reached them. “This is the most outrageous suggestion I have heard,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, the assistant Democratic leader.
Though Mr. Boehner and his allies had secured the votes, the margin of victory was narrow. Lawmakers, aware that the fight was probably not over, did not celebrate with the usual applause, hooping and hollering that erupts when a hard-fought bill goes over the top.
Indeed, an eerie silence settled over the House chamber. Republicans had won, but were in no mood to cheer the prospect of a $2.5 trillion increase in the federal debt limit, a possible fight with the Senate or a default.
Earlier in the day at the White House, Mr. Obama said “any solution to avoid default must be bipartisan. I urge Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to find common ground on a plan that can get support from both parties in the House, a plan that I can sign by Tuesday.”
Mr. Obama urged Republicans in the House and Senate to abandon a bill that “does not solve the problem” and has no chance of passage in the Senate. “There are a lot of crises in the world that we can’t always predict or avoid,” he said. “This isn’t one of those crises.”
In an effort to send a message, House Republicans plan to allow a symbolic vote Saturday on Mr. Reid’s plan to show that it cannot clear the House.
In the Senate, Democrats filed a motion on Friday that started debate, running down the procedural clock while Republicans expressed their opposition. The first vote on overcoming the procedural hurdles would come early on Sunday. Unless the Democrats can win over enough Republicans to cut off debate and move to approve the Reid bill or some variant, the Republicans would be forced to hold the floor continuously, awaiting some kind of deal.
Many members of the Senate are hoping Mr. Reid and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, can strike an agreement that can attract members of both parties to approve a measure that could be sent back to the House. And some Republicans began to encourage a compromise, with a spokeswoman for Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, saying he could back “a Republican bill, or a Democrat bill — it doesn’t matter” as long as it cuts spending, does not raise taxes and avoids default.
But Mr. Reid contended Friday that he was not finding a receptive audience for compromise in Mr. McConnell. “They are not negotiating,” he said. Republican aides said they expected talks to begin, but they wanted to make sure that the White House was part of the bargaining.
The main legislative focus was on the search for an acceptable “trigger” that would guarantee that no second installment of a debt limit increase would be provided without consideration of further spending cuts or program policy changes. Democrats say they are willing to allow a new special committee to consider sweeping deficit reduction and tax policy changes but want the debt limit increase assured; Republicans do not want President Obama to get a second increase without meeting some standard, which would be passage of a balanced budget amendment through Congress under the new House plan.
A new Congressional committee would also have to produce $1.6 trillion or more in savings and win approval of that plan. In many other respects, the plans offered by House Republicans and Senate Democrats are quite similar, and the savings — aside from how those related to winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wars are calculated — are also similar, leading many on Capitol Hill to believe a deal could be reached if lawmakers would draw back from their hardening positions.
Republican Congressional aides said they were hopeful that over the weekend the leadership could come to terms on an approach that would ease the strings on the future debt limit increase but still provide penalties if the new Congressional committee did not make recommendations or they did not become law.
Mr. Obama is planning to fly to Chicago on Wednesday afternoon for two Democratic Party fund-raisers that evening celebrating his 50th birthday, which is Thursday. Yet he plans to return to Washington after midnight rather than stay overnight at his Chicago home, as he typically likes to do when he travels there.
The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, ruled out more definitively than he had before the possibility that Mr. Obama would cite the Fourteenth Amendment to disregard the debt-limit law and order government borrowing to proceed if no deal was reached. House Democratic leaders, former President Bill Clinton and some constitutional lawyers have said that Mr. Obama should, if necessary, invoke the amendment, which holds that “the validity of the public debt … shall not be questioned.”
“This administration does not believe that the Fourteenth Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling. Congress has the authorities necessary to ensure that we meet our obligations,” Mr. Carney said.