The Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington (Susan Walsh / AP)
Washington — On a day crammed with rising and falling hopes, President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans searched Thursday for common ground that could avert an economy-tanking default and possibly end the 10-day-old partial government shutdown.
“We expect further conversations tonight,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said cryptically at nightfall, after he, Speaker John Boehner and a delegation of House Republicans had met for more than an hour with Obama at the White House.
The White House issued a statement describing the session as a good one, but adding, that “no specific determination was made.”
The meeting was attend by two House GOP committee chairmen from Michigan — Dave Camp of Midland, who heads the Ways and Means panel, and Fred Upton of St. Joseph, who leads the Energy and Commerce committee.
Upton said the meeting between Obama and House Republicans was “a constructive discussion” and noted both sides are continuing talks into the night.
The up-and-down day also featured a dour warning from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who told lawmakers that the prospect of default had already caused interest rates to rise — and that worse lay ahead.
Appearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Lew said the Treasury must pay Social Security and veterans benefits as well as salaries to active duty military troops during the second half of this month. He said failure to raise the debt limit by Oct. 17 “could put timely payment of all of these at risk.”
Whatever the outcome, it seemed the endgame was at hand in a pair of crises that had bedeviled divided government for two weeks, rattled markets in the U.S. and overseas and locked 350,000 furloughed federal workers out of their jobs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid advanced legislation in that chamber to simply raise the debt limit and stave off the threat of an unprecedented federal financial default — a measure that Republicans are likely to block unless he agrees to change it.
In the House, Boehner left open the possibility of launching a rival measure on Friday.
As he described it for his rank and file in a closed-door morning session in the Capitol, it would leave the shutdown in place while raising the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt limit and setting up talks between the GOP and the president over spending cuts.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney told reporters the president would “likely sign” a short-term extension in the debt ceiling, and did not rule out his doing so even if it left the shutdown intact.
Reid wasn’t nearly as amenable. “Ain’t gonna happen,” he said brusquely.
By the time House Republicans had returned from the White House hours later, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said part of their hope was to “quickly settle” on legislation to permit the government to reopen.
Senate Republicans forged ahead on an alternative of their own that would ease both the debt-limit and shutdown crises at once. Officials said that it would require Obama to agree to some relatively modest changes to the health care law that stands as his signature domestic achievement.
Some tea party-aligned lawmakers claimed partial credit for the GOP retreat, casting it as a way of finessing one problem so they could quickly resume their own campaign to deny operating funds for the national health care overhaul known as “Obamacare.”
Ironically, Boehner’s plan stirred grumbling among relatively moderate Republicans who said the shutdown should end, but little if any unhappiness among the staunch conservatives who often part company with party leaders.
One Republican said he and fellow tea party allies deserved at least partial recognition for the plan that would raise the debt limit without reopening the government.
“I actually went to (Majority Leader) Eric Cantor a couple days ago and I proposed this. I said, ‘You’re going to think this is crazy but I, as a conservative, would be willing to vote for a debt ceiling for six weeks.,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
Additionally, Sen. Ted Cruz, the conservative Texan who has played a prominent role in this fall’s budget struggles, raised no objections.
For his part, Reid has proposed no-strings-attached legislation to raise the debt limit by $1.1 trillion, enough to prevent a recurrence of the current standoff until after the 2014 elections.
In remarks on the Senate floor during the day, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP leader, said that Democratic measure “just won’t fly.”