House Republicans gave ground Thursday in the debt ceiling fight by offering to raise the nation’s borrowing limit for six weeks, and the White House said President Obama might sign such a measure to avoid default.
With the barest outlines of a deal on the table, as the partial government shutdown entered its 10th day, Mr. Obama met for more than an hour late Thursday with Speaker John A. Boehner and other GOP leaders at the White House, before the Republicans leaders scurried back to the Capitol to huddle.
“The takeaway from the meeting was our teams are going to be talking further,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.
The White House said the meeting was worthwhile but insisted “no specific determination was made.”
The Republicans proposed a six-week limit increase to the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling in exchange for the White House agreeing to talk about a broad set of fiscal issues.
But Senate Democrats remain a sticking point. Majority Leader Harry Reid said he’s not sure what to expect out of the House GOP.
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“We’ll just wait and see, because they cannot decide what they want,” he said.
And late in the evening he set up a key filibuster test vote for Saturday on his preferred option, which would impose a 15-month debt holiday, allowing Mr. Obama to borrow freely until after the 2014 congressional elections.
The mere suggestion of a debt deal by Mr. Boehner sent the stock markets soaring on Thursday, showing how keenly business leaders are watching the negotiations.
The administration says the government will run out of room to borrow more money on Oct. 17 and will have to resort to paying out of cash on hand.
That would probably mean missing payments to Social Security recipients and veterans, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told Congress on Thursday, laying out consequences if the debt limit is fully reached.
He pointedly did not mention halting payments on the debt, but said he shouldn’t be forced to pick and choose between other programs.
Still, he declined to say exactly how he would prioritize, leaving vague the exact consequences.
“I think prioritization is just default by another name,” he said.
The debt negotiations have overshadowed the shutdown, which began Oct. 1 when Congress and Mr. Obama were unable to agree on how to fund the government in fiscal year 2014.
Continuing to deal with the shutdown fallout, the House passed a bill to restore more Border Patrol operations, adding to its list of piecemeal bills.
The Senate, meanwhile, tolled its 10th day without holding a floor vote on any of those proposals. The chamber did, however, clear a bill to ensure families of troops killed in action will be able to immediately receive the $100,000 death benefit they are due.
The White House said that was unnecessary since it had found a work-around that had a private foundation pay the benefits, with a promise that it will be reimbursed after the shutdown ends.
Still, Mr. Obama will have to decide whether to sign the new bill.
The Obama administration also signaled it is willing to relent on some of its closures of national parks, telling the Associated Press it would seek to allow states to use their own money to fund operations at some sites.
It remained unclear late Thursday whether the GOP was still focused solely on a debt deal or whether it would accept adding a shutdown deal into the mix.
House Republicans’ debt proposal was vague when Mr. Boehner laid it out for reporters Thursday morning, after conferring with the House Republican Conference.
“I don’t want to put anything on the table, I don’t want to take anything off the table,” he said.
The White House reacted cooly but didn’t rule out that Mr. Obama might go along with the GOP proposal.
“The president is happy that cooler heads at least seem to be prevailing in the House,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney, who added that the GOP proposal “seems to be a recognition that default is not an option.”
“It is certainly at least an encouraging sign … that they’re not listening to the debt-limit and default deniers,” he said.
But Mr. Carney also said the president “strongly prefers” a Senate bill that would raise the borrowing limit beyond the 2014 elections.
“We’ll see what they’re able to pass, and consider it then,” he said of House Republicans’ proposal.