- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2011

Congressional leaders involved in ongoing deficit-reduction talks with the White House say negotiations have been going slow but well. But they’ll need to hurry in order to beat an early August deadline and avoid a government default on the national debt.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden is scheduled to resume negotiations Tuesday with the bipartisan group - three members each from the House and Senate - to discuss ways to lower the nation’s ballooning debt. But with the House and Senate in session together for only four weeks in June and July, finding time to meet could be tricky.

Adding to the group’s distraction is Mr. Biden’s scheduled official visit to Italy in early June.

The House and Senate typically try to schedule time off simultaneously. But when Republicans took control of the chamber this year, they planned for longer workweeks in exchange for more full weeks off, upsetting the Capitol’s normal scheduling routine.

The congressional sextet and Mr. Biden have been meeting regularly this month to hammer out a deal to increase the $14.294 trillion debt ceiling - the government’s legal limit on how much it can borrow to pay for its operations.

Exceeding the limit could lead to the U.S. defaulting on its loans, a scenario that would damage the nation’s credit rating and could trigger another financial crisis.

The government hit the debt limit last week, though Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said he can juggle accounts until Aug. 2.

President Obama has said he would like the parties to reach a compromise by the end of June.

Republicans want spending cuts to accompany any bump in the debt limit, while Democrats have pushed to end tax breaks to big oil companies and other corporations.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican who is part of the so-called “Biden commission,” warned Monday that raising the debt limit alone won’t be enough to prove to Wall Street the government is serious about shoring up its financial situation.

“The markets are smarter than just [accepting] our blindly raising the debt limit and [then] going about the normal business of Washington,” Mr. Cantor said.

“I don’t doubt that the markets may begin to respond if there’s nothing happening [by Aug. 2]. But our goal is to make something real happen, not just deal for deal’s sake.”

Yet both parties Monday said they were willing to compromise.

Mr. Cantor, when asked whether he would compromise on a House Republican plan to partially privatize Medicare, said “everything’s on the table in the Biden commission discussions.”

“We are engaging in these discussions right now in the Biden commission to really understand where both sides are, and there has been a full discussion so far, and I expect it to continue in all areas,” he said.

Meanwhile, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, who is not a Biden group member, said he would be willing to discuss a Republican proposal regarding federal workers’ benefits.

“I think we all need to be willing to put everything on the table,” Mr. Hoyer said when asked about a possible increase in the contributions that federal employees make into the Federal Employees Retirement System.

The group has been under increased scrutiny since the separate “Gang of Six” - a bipartisan group of senators who have been meeting for months to negotiate ways to cut the deficit - was reduced to five members when Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, quit the group this month in frustration.

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Friday said the Biden talks “are an important vehicle” to finding a deal to cut the budget while ensuring the nation doesn’t default on its loans.

“We believe that is the vehicle and will be the vehicle for an agreement. We’re optimistic about that,” Mr. Carney said. “But obviously, there have been a lot of important contributions from others not actually in the room.”

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