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Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner pointed out that Mr. Obama last week started bipartisan talks aimed at forging a budget deal, and said it’s not too late to preserve the country’s top credit rating.

“Both political parties now agree that it is time to begin bringing down deficits,” he said. “We believe S&P’s negative outlook underestimates the ability of America’s leaders to come together to address the difficult fiscal challenges facing the nation.”

The White House noted that S&P’s competitor, Moody’s Investors Service, viewed recent developments differently.

Moody’s said Monday that the recent submission of plans by both parties to cut deficits by $4 trillion over the next 10 years was a sign that at least basic agreement has been reached on the “parameters of the debate.”

Moreover, that could be viewed as “a turning point that is positive” for the U.S. credit rating, said Moody’s, which also rates the U.S. as AAA — the highest possible grade for a country’s debt.

Republican congressional leaders said S&P’s warning is a “wake-up” call that validates their plans to use the upcoming vote on a measure increasing the nation’s debt limit as a vehicle for enacting major spending cuts and budget reforms.

“Today’s announcement makes clear that the debt-limit increase proposed by the Obama administration must be accompanied by meaningful fiscal reforms that immediately reduce federal spending and stop our nation from digging itself further into debt,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

Other legislators stressed the urgency of working on a plan that both parties can endorse.

“The stakes are high” for political leaders striving to reach a bipartisan deal behind the scenes, said Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

While S&P’s warning was a jolt for financial markets and “raises the stakes” for Congress, Nigel Gault, economist at IHS Global Insight, said he does not entirely agree with the credit agency’s conclusions.

“Just how much time the United States has before it must act is open to debate,” he said. “We would argue that the prospects for long-term deficit reduction have actually improved over the past few months.”

Not only have both the U.S. House and Mr. Obama offered proposals to cut $4 trillion out of future deficits, but Congress is moving toward major curbs in spending without being forced to take action under market pressure, he said.

Mr. Gault credited the Republican-led House with forcing this year’s debate over dealing with the deficit.

The interest rates on Treasury debt — surprisingly — barely budged in response to S&P’s announcement, and they remain historically low, he noted.

That means that Congress and the president may have time to wait until after the 2012 presidential election to enact a major budget deal. But he said the new Congress and administration would have to act almost immediately in January 2013 to avoid a loss of confidence in financial markets.