WASHINGTON (AP) - The endgame at hand, House Republicans
struggled Thursday to pass legislation to prevent a looming
government default while slicing nearly $1 trillion from federal
spending. Senate Democrats pledged to scuttle the bill - if the GOP
could get it through the House - in hopes of forcing a final
As afternoon debate headed toward evening, GOP leaders ordered
an unexplained halt on the measure as Speaker John Boehner summoned
a string of recalcitrant rank-and-file Republicans to his office.
Asked what he and Boehner had talked about, Rep. Jeff Flake,
R-Ariz., said, "I think that's rather obvious. .. There's
negotiations going on."
It wasn't clear how long the delay might last, although a
spokesman for Boehner said the vote was still expected to take
place later in the evening.
The White House quickly taunted Boehner's Republicans.
"Clock ticks towards August 2, House is naming post offices,
while leaders twist arms for a pointless vote. No wonder people
hate Washington," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer
Earlier, Boehner had exuded optimism.
"Let's pass this bill and end the crisis," said the
president's principal Republican antagonist in a new and
contentious era of divided government. "It raises the debt limit
and cuts government spending by a larger amount."
President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the measure, and
in debate on the House floor, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of
Florida savaged it as a "Republican plan for default." She said
the GOP hoped to "hold our economy hostage while forcing an
ideological agenda" on the country.
Despite the sharp rhetoric, there were signs that gridlock might
be giving way.
"Around here you've got to have deadlock before you have
breakthrough," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "We're at that stage
Wall Street suffered fresh losses as Congress struggled to break
its long gridlock. The Dow Jones industrial average was down for a
fifth straight session.
The Treasury Department moved ahead with plans to hold its
regular weekly auction of three-month and six-month securities on
Monday. Yet officials offered no information on what steps would be
taken if Congress failed to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt
limit by the following day.
Without signed legislation by Aug. 2, the Treasury will not have
enough funds to pay all the nation's bills. Administration
officials have warned of potentially calamitous effects on the
economy if that happens - a spike in interest rates, a plunge in
stock markets and a tightening in the job market in a nation
already struggling with unemployment over 9 percent.
White House press secretary Jay Carney outlined White House
compromise terms: "significant deficit reduction, a mechanism by
which Congress would take on the tough issues of tax reform and
entitlement reform and a lifting of the debt ceiling beyond ...
The last point loomed as the biggest obstacle.
The House bill cuts spending by $917 billion over a decade,
principally by holding down costs for hundreds of government
programs ranging from the Park Service to the Agriculture
Department and foreign aid.
It also provides an immediate debt limit increase of $900
billion, which is less than half of the total needed to meet
Obama's insistence that there be no replay of the current crisis in
the heat of the 2012 election campaigns.
An additional $1.6 trillion in borrowing authority would be
conditioned on passage of at least $1.8 trillion in further savings
to be recommended by a newly created committee of lawmakers. Those
deficit reductions would presumably come from cuts to benefit
programs such as Social Security and Medicare, as well as an
overhaul of the tax code generating additional government revenue.
The GOP bill's $917 billion in upfront spending cuts was
trillions less than many tea party-backed rank-and-file Republican
lawmakers wanted, but a total that seemed nearly unimaginable when
they took power in the House last winter with an agenda of reining
in government. Numerous Republicans grumbled that the legislation
didn't cut more deeply, and Boehner and the rest of the GOP
leadership have spent their week cajoling reluctant conservatives
to provide the votes needed to pass it.
By most accounts, they were succeeding.
"It gives us a little bit of heartburn because it doesn't go
big enough," said Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., a first-term lawmaker
who said he would vote for the bill as the best one available.
Another first-term Republican, Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, said
the bill was "far from perfect. But I don't have the luxury of
writing the plan by myself, and neither does Speaker Boehner."
While the White House and Democrats objected to the House bill,
they readied an alternative that contained similarities.
Drafted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, it provides for
$2.7 trillion in additional borrowing authority for the Treasury.
It also calls for cuts of $2.2 trillion, including about $1
trillion in Pentagon savings that assume the end of the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even before the House voted, Reid served notice he would stage a
vote to kill the legislation almost instantly.
"No Democrat will vote for a short-term Band-Aid that would put
our economy at risk and put the nation back in this untenable
situation a few short months from now," he said.
With the House and Senate focused on debt-limit legislation at
opposite ends of the Capitol, eleven religious leaders protesting
budget cuts were arrested in the Rotunda midway between the two
Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine said on the House floor
that they were praying for those who will be "hurt the hardest"
by the bill being considered.
Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., countered that he, too was praying
- to avoid a default.
The day's events marked the climax of a struggle that began last
winter, when the Treasury Department notified Congress it would
need additional borrowing authority, and Boehner said any increase
would have to include steps to reduce future spending.
At first the White House balked at the terms, then relented.
That gradually morphed into a series of bipartisan negotiations,
one led by Vice President Joe Biden, then another by Obama, and
finally, a round of golf that led to stab at a "grand bargain"
between the president and Boehner.
Boehner announced last Friday he was calling off the talks,
setting in motion a frantic week of maneuvering as the default
deadline grew near.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)