Support the news
Updated at 12:01 a.m.
In a last-minute stab at compromise, Republican congressional leaders and the White House made significant progress Saturday toward a deal to avert a government default threatened for early next week, according to officials familiar with the talks.
Under the plan, the nation's debt limit would rise in two steps by about $2.4 trillion and spending would be cut by a slightly larger amount, these officials said. The first stage — about $1 trillion — would take place immediately and the second later in the year.
One official said the two sides had settled on general concepts, but added there were numerous details to be worked out.
Congress would be required to vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, but none of the debt limit increase would be contingent on its approval.
One official said the two sides had settled on general concepts, but added there were numerous details to be worked out, and no assurance of a final agreement.
Still, word of significant progress after weeks of stalemate offered the strongest indication yet that an economy-crippling default might be averted.
The officials who described the talks did so on condition of anonymity, citing their sensitive nature.
Earlier update at 11:44 p.m.
After weeks of intense partisanship, President 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 announcement that progress had been made, offered the strongest indication yet that an economy-crippling default might be averted.
White House officials had no immediate comment.
Nor was there any immediate reaction from Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell or House Speaker John Boehner, Obama's principal Republican antagonist in a contentious era of divided government.
There were no details immediately available on what the terms might be of any compromise.
Reid said that at the request of White House officials, he was postponing a test vote set for shortly after midnight on his own legislation to raise the debt limit while cutting spending.
Republicans opposed his bill, and said in advance they had the votes to block its advance.
Earlier in the day, McConnell said at a news conference with House Speaker John Boehner that they were "fully engaged...with the one person in America out of 307 million people who can sign a bill into law."
"I'm confident and optimistic that we're going to get an agreement in the very near future and resolve this crisis in the best interests of the American people," he said.
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.
Earlier, McConnell told reporters he was "confident and optimistic that we're going to get an agreement in the very near future and resolve this crisis in the best interests of the American people."
But McConnell's upbeat assessment triggered an unusually pointed rebuttal from Reid.
"That's not true," said the Nevada Democrat after returning from a meeting at the White House with Obama and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
Halfway around the world, on a visit to Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, the nation's top military officer fielded questions from troops asking if they would be paid in the event of a default.
"I actually don't know the answer to that question," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, although he told them they would continue to go to work each day.
Obama, in his weekly radio and Internet address, said there were several ways out of the gridlock that has prevented action by Congress, then added, "There is very little time."
But 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.
And a few hours after the president spoke, House Republican leaders engineered a vote to defeat the Reid-drafted proposal to raise the debt limit on a near-party line vote at mid-afternoon.
That was payback of sorts Reid had engineered the rejection of a House-passed bill on Friday within minutes after it reached the Senate.
Individual lawmakers expressed anxiety about the prospect that faced the country if it were to default for the first time in history.
"I'm worried about Congress defaulting on our country," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., urging lawmakers to find common ground. He suggested that spending cuts take place automatically if necessary to ensure the debt limit does not expire before 2013.
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."
The 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.
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."
The House-passed bill provides for a $900 billion debt limit increase, coupled with $917 billion in federal spending cuts.
The last-minute change requires both houses of Congress to approve a Constitutional balanced budget amendment as a precondition for additional borrowing authority to take effect.
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."
This program aired on July 30, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.
Support the news