WASHINGTON — House Republicans pushed toward a vote Thursday on a newly modified plan to stave off an unprecedented government default next week, even though the legislation faces a White House veto threat and unanimous opposition among Senate Democrats.
The vote comes amid growing worry that a dysfunctional Congress might remain gridlocked and plunge the nation into default. Nervous investors sent the Dow Jones industrial average down almost 200 points Wednesday, on top of a 92-point drop the day before. Stocks rose modestly Thursday, based in part on a strong jobs report.
"Default will rock our financial system to its core," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said at the start of the Senate session.
The rival plans by Reid and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have enough in common — including the establishment of a special congressional panel to recommend additional spending cuts this fall — that Reid has hinted a compromise could be easy to snap together.
"Magic things can happen here in Congress in a very short period of time under the right circumstances," Reid told reporters.
White House adviser David Plouffe signaled that a melding of the two bills could be the compromise that averts a crisis.
"What you're going to have to do is reconcile what's in Reid and Boehner, which is a lot of the things the president has talked about in terms of spending cuts he'd be willing to accept. And that's where the compromise is," Plouffe said in an interview on MSNBC.
In the House, Boehner made headway with balky conservatives unhappy that the measure contains smaller spending cuts than a more-stringent debt measure that passed the House last week. The new measure depends on caps on agency budgets to cut more than $900 billion from the deficit over the coming decade while permitting a commensurate increase in the nation's borrowing to allow the government to pay its bills.
Boehner acknowledged that the measure was hardly perfect but said it represented "the best opportunity we have to hold the president's feet to the fire. He wants a $2.4 trillion blank check that lets him continue his spending binge through the next election. This is the time to say no." Boehner made the comments Wednesday to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham.
The White House threatened a veto, saying the bill did not meet President Barack Obama's demand for an increase in the debt limit large enough to prevent a rerun of the current crisis next year, in the heat of the 2012 election campaign.
"It's inconceivable to me that the president would actually follow through on this threat," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday. "After all, the president's first responsibility is to do what's best for the country, not his re-election campaign. Same goes for the Senate Democrats."
McConnell accused Democrats of "playing with fire" in planning to block the Boehner proposal in the Senate.
Obama supports an alternative drafted by Reid that contains comparable cuts to agency operating budgets but also claims savings from lowball estimates of war costs. Reid's plan would provide a record-breaking $2.7 trillion in additional borrowing authority, enough to tide the government over through 2012. Reid, however, is plainly short of the votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.
Unless Congress acts by Tuesday, administration officials say, the government will not be able to pay all its bills. They include $23 billion in Social Security benefits due Aug. 3, an $87 billion payment to investors to redeem maturing Treasury securities and more than $30 billion in interest payments that come due Aug. 15.
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