Optimism, But Still No Debt Deal, On Capitol Hill

President Obama postponed a meeting with congressional leadership Monday afternoon to give Senate leaders more time to work on a deal to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. It's being taken as a sign that progress is being made, but the president warned that damage from a default on the nation's debts would dwarf the economic impact of the partial government shutdown.

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President Obama says he's hoping for a new spirit of cooperation to end the two-week old government shutdown and avoid a crippling default. And there are some encouraging signs this afternoon. Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate say they're optimistic a deal can be reached soon. The president had summoned congressional leaders to the White House this afternoon, but that meeting was postponed to allow more time for talks to continue on Capitol Hill.

For more, we're joined by NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. And Scott, the initial thought might have been that the postponement of that meeting was a bad sign but apparently, not so.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: That's right, Melissa. This could be a case where no meeting is actually a positive sign. When the White House initially announced that meeting earlier today, it was billed as a chance for the president to restate his position and make it clear Congress needs to act- in other words, another opportunity for the president to browbeat lawmakers. But after the meeting was arranged, talks between the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, appeared to be bearing fruit. So Obama agreed to take a step back and let the senators carry on.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think there has been some progress in the Senate. I think House Republicans continue to think that somehow they can extract concessions by keeping the government shut down or by threatening default. And my hope is is that a spirit of cooperation will move us forward over the next few hours.

HORSLEY: And there is some real urgency here. Remember, in just a few days, the government will exhaust its borrowing authority, and then will be staring at a possible default. And meantime, of course, a lot of the government is shut down. The president was speaking there at a Washington, D.C., food pantry, where a lot of furloughed federal employees have been spending their idle days making peanut butter and jelly, and baloney sandwiches.

BLOCK: Scott, any details about what Sen. Reid and Sen. McConnell may be agreeing to in these meetings?

HORSLEY: Well, the two key goals here are to reopen the government and extend the borrowing limit. And the big question mark has been, for how long? The Democrats want to extend the borrowing limit for as long as they can - well into next year, if possible. And at the same time, they want the spending bill, the bill that would reopen the government, to have a fairly short duration because they're reluctant to lock in what they see as painful spending cuts. They want a chance to renegotiate those.

Now, Republicans, on the other hand, want roughly the opposite: a fairly short-term debt limit extension - remember last week, House Republicans were talking about something as short as six weeks - and a longer-term spending bill. So those are two areas where there's been some horse trading going on. There are reports that negotiators are crafting a deal to extend the debt limit through mid-February, and to keep funding the government through mid-January.

BLOCK: And Scott, it looks as if Wall Street is pretty encouraged that the parties are at least talking.

HORSLEY: Yeah, remember, the stock market had a big rally at the end of last week. when it looked as if lawmakers were going to settle their differences and stop playing chicken with the global economy. And then over the weekend, those talks seemed to bog down. And from the opening bell this morning, stocks were deep in the red. But later, when we got some upbeat signals from Capitol Hill and from the White House, stocks turn positive again. All the major stock indices ended this day with modest gains, up about one-half of 1 percent.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. Scott, thanks very much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

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