More Negotiations, Still No Deal, On Shutdown, Debt Ceiling

As the U.S. gets closer to a debt default, lawmakers in both the House and Senate were in session on Monday's Columbus Day holiday to continue negotiations to find an agreement to raise the debt ceiling.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. Both the House and the Senate were in session today as the country closes in on the debt-ceiling deadline. If Congress doesn't raise the debt limit before Thursday, the White House says the country will likely begin defaulting on its obligations. President Obama postponed a meeting with congressional leaders this afternoon. A White House statement says that allows Senate leaders more time to continue making important progress toward a solution that raises the debt limit and reopens the government.

Joining us now is NPR's congressional reporter Ailsa Chang and Ailsa, the spin from that statement from the White House seems to indicate that this indicates progress; that this is a good thing that the meeting was postponed.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: It probably is a good sign. I mean, it feels like over the last day, maybe day and a half, a glimmer of light is finally peeking through. Earlier today, the president expressed this optimism, at least on the Senate side of things. He was making sandwiches at a nonprofit called Martha's Table, when he said he's seen real progress on the Senate Republican side, that there seems to be a real understanding default is just not an option.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's been some progress in recognizing that we're not going to be able to completely bridge the differences between the parties all at once, and so it doesn't make sense in the meantime to try to use a shutdown or the threat of default as leverage in negotiations.

BLOCK: Well, Ailsa, as these negotiations continue on the Senate side, what's the word? Have there been any breakthroughs?

CHANG: Not quite yet, but both Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say an agreement between them will materialize within days. The two men actually have had a chilly relationship lately. It's been months since they've tried to sit down face to face and work out a deal. So it was a promising sign when they started talking on Saturday. Here's how Reid summed up the tenor of those talks on the floor today.

SEN. HARRY REID: I'm very optimistic that we will reach an agreement that's reasonable in nature - this week- to reopen the government, pay the nation's bill and begin long-term negotiations to put our country on sound fiscal footing. I deeply appreciate my friend the minority leader for his diligent efforts to come to an agreement.

CHANG: And McConnell reciprocated that goodwill, saying he, too, was confident a deal would be reached.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: We've had an opportunity over the last couple of days to have some very constructive exchanges of views about how to move forward. And those discussions continue, and I share his optimism that we're going to get a result that will be acceptable to both sides.

BLOCK: And I'm trying to read between the lines there, Ailsa, but in - amid all that optimism, what are the sticking points between these two leaders in the Senate?

CHANG: Well, neither leader is commenting specifically on any aspects of the deal as it's taking shape right now. McConnell's office tells me the details are constantly changing, but the talks do seem to be focusing on reopening the government through the end of the year, and raising the debt ceiling into 2014.

Now, for how long will the debt ceiling be raised, it's still not clear right now. There also may be some concessions to Republicans on the Affordable Care Act. One thing that's been considered is a delay of the tax on medical devices, which helps fund the health care law, and it's likely that any such deal would also set up a framework for a larger negotiation on other budget issues, like cutting entitlement spending. But whatever agreements Senate leaders come to would still, of course, need to get through the House.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, thanks so much.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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