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Debt focus shifts to Senate

The House passed Speaker John A. Boehner’s plan for raising the federal debt limit Friday, but attention quickly shifted to the Democrat-controlled Senate where the rough outlines of a compromise to avert a possible economic crisis were emerging through the fog of partisan anger and tension.

The Republican plan passed 218-210, with no Democratic votes. The Senate promptly voted down the measure Friday night 59-41 and is continuing work on its own solution that might win bipartisan support.

The likely compromise would be similar to major elements of Boehner’s plan but would drop his requirement that Congress go through another potentially protracted debate over the debt ceiling in a matter of months.

Instead, a compromise would include a complex mechanism that would attempt to guarantee that Congress will approve further reductions in the long-term federal deficit early in 2012. The overall goal would be to cut the long-term deficit by more than $2 trillion over the next 10 years, in part by empowering a special congressional committee to propose spending cuts and possibly revenue increases later this year.

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Congress is expected to stay in session over the weekend, with the Senate planning to start its skirmishing with a possible 1 a.m. Sunday vote on another plan. Initially, the Senate will be working on a proposal offered by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and backed by President Obama, which would raise the debt limit through 2012 and cut deficits by $2.2 trillion over the next decade.

Reid’s measure faces opposition from Republicans who are threatening a filibuster, forcing round-the-clock Senate sessions. Underscoring the legislative maneuvering, House GOP leaders may try to beat the Senate to the punch on its own measure by bringing it up for action in their chamber Saturday.

With just days remaining to avoid the risk of an unprecedented default, Reid invited Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky, to resume negotiations on a compromise. Seven GOP senators would need to join Democrats to allow a final vote no later than Tuesday, when the Treasury Department has said the federal government will run short of money to pay its bills. The financial markets ended the week down, falling for the sixth consecutive day.

McConnell’s office off the Senate floor in the Capitol saw a steady stream of GOP senators coming and going. Several senators were called for a lunch meeting with McConnell as conversations turned to amending the Reid bill in a way that could win Republican support.

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Boehner received a standing ovation when he, also, visited the Senate GOP lunch. But in public comments, several Senate Republicans were sharply critical of the proceedings in the House and suggested they could be open to a compromise with the Democrats.

“What’s happening in the House is kind of pathetic,” said Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.). “We need to get everybody to work together for the good of the country, not any political party or interest.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said that “we are all troubled with the delay in resolving this issue.”

The goal, congressional officials indicated, was to develop a compromise that could pass the Senate early next week as the clock ticks down and then go back to the House and pass with a coalition of Democratic and Republican votes.

Any such bill would lose a substantial number of House Republicans aligned with the “tea party,” who, as the past week has shown, are willing to defy GOP leaders. Many did not view Boehner’s bill as conservative enough. Some don’t want to raise the debt ceiling at all.

Obama, in a morning statement from the White House, called on Congress to compromise.

“We are almost out of time,” Obama said. “I urge Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to find common ground on a plan that can get support — that can get support from both parties in the House –- a plan that I can sign by Tuesday.”

The few remaining days before Tuesday’s deadline are about finessing specific policy revisions to build political support, but also involve the strategic calculation of running out the clock.

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The 11th hour can be a forceful motivator in Washington, particularly over a weekend with jittery financial markets preparing to reopen Monday morning. All sides say they want to avoid putting the economy in further distress. Yet, few senators were willing to publicly acknowledge what changes to the agreement were needed to secure their votes.

The negotiations are focusing on a menu of “trigger” mechanisms to bring about further deficit-reduction measures, without resorting to holding the debt ceiling hostage to those votes.

Reid and McConnell have 24 hours to craft such an agreement. One trigger under discussion would mandate deficit reduction measures if the new committee’s recommendations for cuts are not approved by Congress.

Another option would allow a bipartisan group of five Democratic and five Republican senators to force a vote in that body on recommendations it develops if the new congressional committee stalls. Deficits could be reduced by spending cuts or tax revenue increases or both.

The compromise designers also could choose to lay out a “parade of horribles” that no one wants — unacceptable reductions in Medicare or tax hikes — to force lawmakers to agree to less onerous steps. Cuts in defense spending and transportation projects are other possibilities.

Obama wants what he calls a “balanced approach” to the trigger mechanism, according to Democratic officials familiar with the situation. Officials at every level of the White House were involved in talks with Congress, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

The White House expected negotiations to resume after Congress finished voting on proposals limited to partisan appeal. Obama and Boehner have not spoken in several days.

lmascaro@tribune.com

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khennessey@tribune.com

cparsons@tribune.com

Staff writers Peter Nicholas, James Oliphant and Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.


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