WASHINGTON — The nation’s economy on the line, President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans groped inconclusively Thursday for a compromise to avert an unprecedented U.S. default and end the 10-day-old partial government shutdown.
“We expect further conversations tonight,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said cryptically at nightfall, after he, Speaker John Boehner and a delegation of other Republicans met for more than an hour with Obama at the White House.
The White House issued a statement describing the session as a good one, but adding, “no specific determination was made.”
Yet it seemed the endgame was at hand in the crises that have bedeviled the divided government for weeks, rattled markets in the U.S. and overseas and locked 350,000 furloughed federal workers out of their jobs. Both sides expressed fresh hopes for a resolution soon.
The up-and-down day also featured a dour warning from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who told lawmakers that the prospect of default had already caused interest rates to rise — and that worse lay ahead.
Appearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Lew said the Treasury must pay Social Security and veterans benefits as well as salaries to active duty military troops during the second half of this month. He said failure to raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit by Oct. 17 “could put timely payment of all of these at risk.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid advanced legislation to simply raise the debt limit and stave off the threat of an unprecedented federal financial default — a measure that Republicans are likely to block unless he agrees to change it.
Across the Capitol, Boehner left open the possibility of launching a rival measure in the House on Friday.
As he described it for his rank and file in a closed-door morning session in the Capitol, it would leave the shutdown in place while raising the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt limit and setting up negotiations between the GOP and the president over spending cuts and other issues.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney told reporters the president would “likely sign” a short-term extension in the debt ceiling, and did not rule out his doing so even if it left the shutdown intact.
Reid wasn’t nearly as amenable. “Ain’t gonna happen,” he said brusquely.
By the time House Republicans had returned from the White House hours later, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said part of their hope was to “quickly settle” on legislation to permit the government to reopen.
Rogers, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters it was clear Obama would “like to have the shutdown stopped ... and we’re trying to find out what he would insist upon in the (legislation) and what we would insist upon.”
Senate Republicans forged ahead on an alternative of their own that would ease both the debt-limit and shutdown crises at once. Officials said that it would require Obama to agree to some relatively modest changes to the health care law.