WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid served notice Friday that he's pushing ahead with his debt-limit bill as House Speaker John Boehner's rival measure languished in limbo, further escalating a wrenching political standoff that has heightened fears of a market-rattling government default.
"This is likely our last chance to save this nation from default," Reid declared glumly on the Senate floor, as a Tuesday's deadline drew closer.
Reid's move came with Boehner's bill still in wait of a vote and a bitter standoff between GOP leaders and their conservative rank and file. Demoralized House Republicans were striving for a third straight day to pass the Boehner bill, even though it had virtually no chance of surviving the Senate.
Reid, D-Nev., said he had invited Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to join him in negotiations.
"I know the Senate compromise bill Democrats have offered is not perfect in Republican' eyes. Nor is it perfect for Democrats," Reid said. "But together, we must make it work for all of us. It is the only option."
Reid's move sets up a showdown vote on Sunday.
McConnell dismissed the Democratic effort, arguing that it stands no chance in the GOP-controlled House and blamed Obama for pushing the nation to the brink of an economic abyss.
"If the president hadn't decided to blow up the bipartisan solution that members of Congress worked so hard to produce last weekend, we'd be voting to end this crisis today," McConnell said on the Senate floor.
Underscoring the mad scramble in Congress for an elusive solution, both chambers recessed moments after opening speeches.
Boehner, R-Ohio, suffered a stinging setback Thursday when, for a second consecutive day, he had to postpone a vote on his proposal to extend the nation's borrowing authority while cutting federal spending by nearly $1 trillion.
"Obviously, we didn't have the votes," Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., said after Boehner and the GOP leadership had spent hours trying to corral the support of rebellious conservatives.
Republicans were trying again Friday. If they continued to fail, then President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats would have extensive leverage to shape a bill to their liking and practically dare the House to reject it and send the nation into default.
If, however, Republicans can get Boehner's version through the House, a rapid and complex set of choices will determine whether and how a debt crisis can be averted. House Republicans will be under tremendous pressure to pass something, even if they have to make it so appealing to their right wing that the nation's independents and centrists will laugh it off. As Thursday's events proved, nothing is guaranteed.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Friday morning he believed Boehner was "very close" to having the necessary votes for passage the second time around.
"I'm confident the speaker will get there today," he said in an interview on MSNBC. Buchanan said conservatives have been wary of the various rival debt-limit bills because "people don't trust the process."
Nevertheless, Buchanan said "there's been some momentum" in Boehner's direction since late Thursday and into the day. He said he'll vote for the bill, but warned, "The bottom line is, we're willing to raise the debt ceiling, but at the same time we want to make sure the cuts are delivered."
The main area of dispute between the two parties is how to encourage or guarantee big spending cuts in the future without rekindling a fiercely divisive debt-ceiling debate such as the one now raging.
Interviews with well-placed insiders suggest the following road map, assuming Boehner can get his bill out of the House:
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