The White House is shown in the background as the debt crisis remains unsolved, just three days before the nation could go into default.
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WASHINGTON -- After weeks of intense partisanship, President Barack Obama and congressional leaders made a last-minute stab at compromise Saturday night to avoid a government default threatened for early next week.
“There are many elements to be finalized...there is still a distance to go,” Majority Leader Harry Reid cautioned in dramatic late-night remarks on the Senate floor.
Still, his disclosure that “talks are going on at the White House now,” coupled with his saying progress had been made, offered the strongest indication yet that a default might be averted.
White House officials had no immediate comment.
But Mr. Reid delayed a test vote on the Democratic debt limit increase plan until 1 p.m. EDT Sunday to give negotiators more time to work out a deal.
In brief remarks on the Senate floor, Reid, a Democrat, said that negotiations between congressional leaders and the Obama administration were ongoing, but that there was “still a distance to go” before a deal might be reached.
The Senate had been scheduled to take a 1 a.m. test vote on Sunday on the Democratic debt limit plan that Republicans said they opposed and could have blocked.
Without legislation in place by next Tuesday, administration officials say the Treasury will run out of funds to pay all the nation’s bills. They say a subsequent default could prove catastrophic for the U.S. economy and send shockwaves around the world.
The president is seeking legislation to raise the government’s $14.3 trillion debt limit by about $2.4 trillion, enough to tide the Treasury over until after the 2012 elections. Over many weeks, he has agreed to Republican demands that deficits be cut — without a requirement for tax increases — in exchange for additional U.S. borrowing authority.
But Obama has threatened to veto any legislation that would require a second vote in Congress for any additional borrowing authority to take effect, saying that would invite a recurrence of the current crisis in the heat of next year’s election campaigns.
Saturday’s developments opened with Obama saying, “There is very little time” in his weekly radio and Internet address.
A few hours later, House Republican leaders engineered a vote to defeat a Reid-drafted proposal to raise the debt limit on a near-party line vote at mid-afternoon.
Arguing into the night, Republicans stood ready to block the same measure’s advance in the Senate.
Reid accused Republicans of filibustering, and it appeared he was hoping to find enough defectors in the GOP ranks so he could overcome the blockade.
In contrast to McConnell, Reid said individual Republicans had shown a willingness to compromise.
Indeed, some Republicans expressed concerns about the effects of gridlock.
“I’m worried about Congress defaulting on our country,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. He suggested terms of a possible compromise and urged fellow lawmakers to find common ground.
With financial markets closed for the weekend, lawmakers had a little breathing room, but not much. Asian markets begin opening for the new work week when it is late Sunday afternoon in the capital.
In his remarks at a news conference, McConnell said Obama “needs to indicate what he will sign, and we are in those discussions.”
He said later he had spoken several times during the day with Vice President Joe Biden, who played a prominent role in earlier attempts to break the gridlock that has pushed the country to the verge of an unprecedented default.
Boehner said that despite the partisanship of recent weeks, “I think we’re dealing with reasonable, responsible people who want this crisis to end as quickly as possible and I’m confident it will.”
To get to the endgame, Republicans and Democrats had to go through the formality of killing each other’s bills — scoring their own political points — before they could turn to meaningful negotiations.
Still, the sudden talk of compromise contrasted sharply with the day’s earlier developments as both the House and Senate convened for unusual Saturday sessions.
The House voted down legislation drafted by Democrat Reid to raise the government’s debt limit by $2.4 trillion and cut spending by the same amount.
The vote was 246-173, mostly along party lines and after debate filled with harsh, partisan remarks.
Republicans said the Reid spending-cuts plan was filled with gimmicks and would make unacceptable reductions in Pentagon accounts. “It offers no real solutions to the out-of-control spending problems,” said Rep. Alan Nunnelee of Mississippi, part of a group of 87 first-term Republicans who have led the push for deeper spending cuts.
Not even Democrats seemed to like the legislation very much, although many emerged from a closed-door meeting of the rank and file saying they would vote for it.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, called it “the least worst alternative to avoid default.”
Yet with their votes, many Democrats signaled their readiness for compromise by voting to cut spending without raising taxes. Many Republicans insist taxes must not be raised to cut into federal deficits, even for the wealthiest Americans and for big oil companies.
In remarks on the House floor, Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., said the vote itself could be prelude to a final effort at compromise that would involve the White House and the leaders of both parties.
Across the Capitol, the Senate marked the hours before a scheduled test vote at 1 a.m. Sunday on the same measure.
There was no doubt about the outcome there, either, unless compromise intervened.
A total of 43 Republicans sent Reid a letter saying they would block the bill from advancing, enough to prevail.
With both parties’ preferred solutions blocked, the only alternatives were compromise that was so far elusive or a default that no one claimed to want.
The day’s events in the House were orchestrated as political payback, and unusual at that, since Republicans lined up to kill legislation that hadn’t even cleared the Senate.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Reid had engineered the demise of a House-passed bill hours after it passed, and without so much as a debate on its merit.
Pelosi said Boehner “chose to go to the dark side” when he changed his own legislation to satisfy tea party lawmakers and other critics.
There were catcalls from the Republican side of the aisle at that, and Pelosi responded by repeating that the speaker “chose to go to the dark side.”
Republicans ridiculed Reid’s legislation.
“Not only does it fail to address our spending and debt problem, it won’t even prevent a downgrade of our credit rating,” said Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J. “We need actual cuts to government spending to address our long-term debt crisis, not phantom cuts and accounting gimmicks.”