US fiscal negotiations sputter as deadline nears

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional negotiations to end a US fiscal crisis gripping Washington and spooking financial markets hung by a thread yesterday after bipartisan talks broke down in the House of Representatives and shifted to Senate leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, held an initial session with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. But uncertainty remained about their ability to reach an agreement quickly to end a partial government shutdown and increase the nation’s borrowing authority.

Thursday is the deadline for raising the debt ceiling, necessary to avoid a possible government default. The Senate was set to meet on today, but the US House of Representatives was not, so Congress will be cutting it close. “Economists say it won’t be long before financial markets react negatively to this continued uncertainty,” Reid said on the Senate floor.

“The life savings of ordinary Americans are at risk.”

Among the unresolved issues is the duration of the debt ceiling increase. House Republicans were pushing a boost that would last only six weeks, producing another potential showdown in the middle of the holiday season. Democrats want to push the next debt ceiling deadline at least well into the new year.

Also at issue were government spending levels and Republican concerns about President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law, popularly known as Obamacare. Republican demands for defunding Obamacare led to the shutdown on Oct 1.

Reid and other Senate Democratic leaders went to the White House to confer with Obama in the afternoon, but said nothing to reporters as they left after an hour and 15 minutes.

Lawmakers are also scrambling to put hundreds of thousands of federal employees back to work after their failure to fund the government resulted in the partial shutdown.

Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said the goal was to reach a bipartisan deal in the Senate before financial markets reopen tomorrow.

But the road to a deal appeared difficult, as Reid dismissed Republican Senator Susan Collins’ plan to extend the US debt limit until Jan 31 and fund the government for six more months.

That plan had given some moderate lawmakers hopes for a quick compromise, but Democrats said it was saddled with too many objectionable add-ons.

Collins expressed disappointment, but said she remained hopeful “that a bipartisan solution to reopen the government and prevent a default is within our reach.”

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