A Turbulent Day In Capitol Hill As Debt Default Looms

With the threat of defaulting on the nation's obligations now possibly just two days off, the focus shifted back to the House, where Speaker John Boehner called a caucus meeting to sell his plan — and then quickly had to downplay the idea that he even had a plan. The Senate, meanwhile, slowed things down to see if Boehner could pass anything at all.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And it's back to the Senate. We are now 15 days into a government shutdown, less than 48 hours away from a possible government default; and efforts in Congress to resolve both are confusing. House Speaker John Boehner spent the day trying to settle on a plan that House Republicans could support, ultimately scrapping a planned vote. And Senate talks that had been on hold have now resumed.

And all of that has happened in just the last hour. For the latest, we're joined by NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: Senate talks have resumed between Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Remind us why those talks had been put on ice, and what they hope to accomplish.

KEITH: They halted, paused, pushed the pause button on their talks earlier today when it became clear that House Speaker John Boehner was working on a plan in the House. So they said we're going to wait, wait it out. Well, they have stopped waiting because of the action in the House. A spokesman for Mitch McConnell says given tonight's events, the leaders have decided to work toward a solution that would reopen the government and prevent default. And a spokesman for Harry Reid says that they've re-engaged in negotiations and they are optimistic that an agreement is within reach. The goal here is to reopen the government, avoid a debt ceiling problem and figure out some way eventually to have some budget negotiations and get off this treadmill of crisis that we've been on for years.

SIEGEL: Now earlier in the day, it appeared the House was planning to vote tonight on a measure to reopen the government and to raise the debt limit temporarily. And that vote is now off. What happened?

KEITH: It appears that they just simply did not have enough support, though leaders aren't saying that exactly. Pete Sessions, who is a Republican from Texas and is head of the rules committee, came out and spoke to reporters.

REP. PETE SESSIONS: We are going to be prepared tomorrow to make some decisions, but we will not be meeting in rules committee tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So there will be no action on the House floor tonight, sir?

SESSIONS: There will be no action, no votes, and the rules committee will not be in tonight.

KEITH: It's almost like the last 24 hours didn't happen, except that we're 24 hours closer to the risk of default.

SIEGEL: Now we should say here that House Speaker John Boehner is trying to find a plan that would have enough Republican votes to carry it and to win a majority - they have a majority in the House. In the past, he's had trouble getting House Republicans to coalesce behind anything but the most conservative proposals. Is that what happened again this time?

KEITH: Essentially that is what happened. The speaker had a plan that was similar to the Senate plan but had some other things related to the Affordable Care Act tacked on that he thought House Republicans would like. Well, a couple of the outside conservative groups very quickly came in and said no, we're going to score this a no vote, because they felt that it didn't do enough to attack the healthcare law. And so, the speaker has just - he has spent this day as he has spent many days sort of struggling to find that magical thing that would get enough support and thus far he hasn't been able to find it.

Earlier today, he came out of a two-hour long closed door meeting with his members and said, you know, they were still working on it. I'll play you the tape here, but he might as well be saying the same thing now.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: There are a lot of opinions about what direction to go. There have been no decisions about what exactly we will do. But we're going to continue to work with our members on both sides of the aisle to try to make sure that there's no issue of default and to get our government reopened.

KEITH: In some way though, it may be out of his hands at this point because the ball, as they say, is back in the Senate's court.

SIEGEL: Now, Tamara, it's been a couple of weeks since the Congress failed to avoid the shutdown of the government, but the next deadline is just two days off, it's the 17th. That's when Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says the government won't have enough money to meet all of its obligations. Is there a sense of extra urgency about this in Congress?

KEITH: I think that's why we're hearing from the Senate leaders and their spokespeople in part to try to calm the markets, which will open tomorrow morning with no clear sense of a way out of this. And the Fitch Ratings Agency has come out tonight and said that it is placing the United States on ratings watch negative because of this ongoing drama.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's Tamara Keith on Capitol Hill. Thank you, Tamara.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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