Senate deal to end government shutdown, raise debt limit appears near

Senate leaders said Monday that they were optimistic that they would reach a deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt limit. But time is short, and the House is a wild card. 

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama visits Martha's Table, which prepares meals for the poor and where furloughed federal employees are volunteering, in Washington Monday. Obama said that if Republicans can't resolve the standoff over the debt ceiling and the partial government shutdown, 'We stand a good chance of defaulting.'

A planned meeting between President Obama and congressional leaders Monday afternoon was postponed right as the meeting was supposed to take place – but that may actually be a sign that an end is in sight to the debt-limit negotiations as well as the two-week-old government shutdown.

Leadership from both parties expressed optimism that they were nearing an agreement that could end the standoff before Thursday's deadline for raising the debt ceiling, and the White House, while it did not set a new date for the meeting, said in a statement that the meeting was postponed to "allow leaders in the Senate time to continue making important progress towards a solution that raises the debt limit and reopens the government."

Earlier on Monday, Mr. Obama had warned lawmakers that if they don't reach a resolution, the US has "a good chance of defaulting" – which could have devastating economic repercussions.

The Senate has been making steady progress toward a deal, and the current one gaining traction reportedly would fund the government through the end of the year and raise the debt ceiling until mid-February. It would also call for new budget negotiations to happen before the next round of sequestration cuts takes effect, and might make some minor concessions on the Affordable Care Act, including a delay of the tax on medical devices.

Senate leaders from both parties spoke on the Senate floor Monday afternoon, sounding the most optimistic they have since the shutdown began.

“I’m very optimistic that we will reach an agreement that’s reasonable in nature this week,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said, extending rare praise to his Republican counterpart, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. “I deeply appreciate my friend the minority leader for his diligent efforts to come to an agreement.”

Senator McConnell also called the negotiations "very constructive" and said that he shares Senator Reid's "optimism that we’re going to get a result that will be acceptable to both sides.”

The biggest unknown, of course, is whether the House will go along with a Senate agreement. House Republicans have been the staunchest resisters to any plan to fund the government without significant changes to the Affordable Care Act. But as the shutdown drags on and the deadline for raising the debt ceiling approaches – and polls show that a majority of Americans blame Republicans for the crisis – a bipartisan deal in the Senate would put significant pressure on House Republicans, and on Speaker John Boehner to bring the deal to a vote.

As polls have solidified showing that Republicans are bearing the brunt of Americans' anger over the shutdown, the strategies have shifted. One new Washington Post/ABC poll shows that just 1 in 5 Americans approves of how congressional Republicans are handling the crisis, compared with 33 percent for congressional Democrats and 42 percent for Obama. Many Republicans initially hoped the shutdown would be a tool to force major concessions on the Affordable Care Act, but now, sensing an advantage, some congressional Democrats are seeking concessions of their own on the sequester budget cuts.

Some Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have complained, with Senator Collins saying that Democrats "keep moving the goal posts."

And current negotiations seem to be centering mostly on dates – whether, for instance, a temporary funding of the government would end before the next round of sequestration cuts kicks in, in order to allow Democrats to renegotiate those cuts.

But if a deal seems near in the Senate, there is still significant concern about whether it will happen soon enough – and get the House approval it needs – to avoid running up against the Thursday deadline for raising the debt limit.

In his remarks at a Washington food bank Monday, Obama urged speed, and warned of the consequences if Congress doesn't act soon enough. Calling the shutdown "completely unnecessary," Obama called on lawmakers to raise the debt limit before Thursday and to end the shutdown.

“This week, if we don’t start making some real progress, both in the House and the Senate, and if Republicans aren’t willing to set aside their partisan concerns in order to do what’s right for the country, we stand a good chance of defaulting, and defaulting could have a potentially have a devastating affect on our economy," Obama said.

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