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In Senate, bitter debate but little agreement on Dems' debt plan

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, bipartisan negotiations resumed and hope grew for an accord. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said he was "confident that we're going to be able to come to some agreement with the White House and end this impasse."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he spoke to President Barack 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," McConnell added. "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."

The president later met with congressional Democratic leaders, but there was little evidence that an agreement was imminent. The Republican-run House of Representatives voted 246 to 173 to reject a new plan by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, 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 plan throughout the day Saturday, and scheduled a post-midnight vote on whether to cut off debate. The vote was expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed, since 43 Republicans sent Reid a letter saying they opposed the measure.

The nation's $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.

But even though McConnell originally proposed the three-stage plan to raise the debt limit, he wouldn't back Reid's measure, with a spokesman saying that McConnell has never liked the plan but offered it as a last resort. The two longtime senators, both usually measured in their public comments, engaged in an unusually personal war of words on the Senate floor 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, of Kentucky, 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.

And, he asked, "What will they vote for?"

"A bill the president agrees to sign," McConnell answered.

"He will sign my legislation," Reid said.

The Senate debated Reid's proposal all day and planned a post-midnight vote on whether to cut off extended debate — an effort expected to fail, probably wounding the bill's chances.

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.

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.

The House debate was unusually bitter.

"You have not moved a single centimeter towards compromise," said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "I believe my side of the aisle will overwhelmingly say yes — not because they like this bill, but because they believe it is a compromise that can work."

But Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., thought the debate and vote were little more than partisan posturing.

"This is a disgraceful moment," he said.

No, countered House Rules Committee David Dreier, R-Calif., who insisted the vote would help move the process along by showing where House Republicans stood.

"That is pernicious nonsense," Levin shot back.

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