Democratic and Republican senators are working on a fiscal deal to extend U.S. borrowing authority at least through mid-February and provide government funding until mid-January to end the government shutdown, says a source familiar with the negotiations.
The tentative framework, which is not finalized and could change, would also set up a new round of deficit-reduction negotiations that would try to strike a bargain by year's end.
The source, who asked not to be identified, said negotiators were still bargaining over whether the Feb. 15 date for the debt limit extension would be a firm deadline or whether the Treasury Department would be allowed to use "extraordinary measures" to extend borrowing beyond that date, as it has done in the recent past.
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Lawmakers are racing against the clock, with U.S. officials estimating that the federal government could run out of borrowing capacity this Thursday.
The plan under discussion would raise the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling by enough to cover the nation's borrowing needs at least through mid-February 2014, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.
It also would fund government operations through the middle of January, keeping in place the across-the-board "sequester" spending cuts that took effect in March. It would also set up a new round of budget talks that would try to strike a bargain by year's end.
Any deal would also have to win approval in the House of Representatives, where conservative Republicans have insisted that any continued government funding must include measures to undercut President Barack Obama's signature health law — a nonstarter for Democrats.
The deal would not resolve disagreements over long-term spending and health care that led to the crisis in the first place. It would amount to a clear retreat for Republicans who have sought to tie any continued funding and borrowing authority to measures that would undercut Obama's Affordable Care Act.
Republicans have taken a hit in opinion polls since the two-week standoff began, and some in the party worry it could hurt their chances to win control of the Senate in next year's midterm elections.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Monday found that 74 percent of Americans disapprove of the way congressional Republicans have handled the standoff, compared with a 53 percent disapproval rating for Obama.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky echoed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's comments that a deal could come together soon.
"I share his optimism that we're going to get a result that will be acceptable to both sides," McConnell said on the Senate floor.
The White House postponed a planned 3 p.m. meeting with congressional leaders to give negotiators more time to work out a deal.
The Treasury Department says it cannot guarantee the government will be able to pay its bills past Thursday if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling by then.
A default would likely come by Nov. 1, as Treasury would not have enough tax revenue coming in to cover interest payments, retirement benefits and other obligations.
WEIGHING ON THE ECONOMY
It is unclear whether Congress can meet the Thursday deadline. Even if Republicans and Democrats in the Senate reach agreement late Monday, hard-liners such as Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz may be able to exploit Senate rules to delay a vote for several days.
House Speaker John Boehner also could face an insurrection that could threaten his position as Washington's top Republican if he tries to advance a bill over the objections of rank-and-file conservatives in that chamber.
Though Treasury likely would have enough cash on hand to meet its obligations for a week or so, it might be forced to pay a higher interest rate on debt it is due to issue on Thursday.
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Banks and money market funds are already shunning some government securities that are often used as collateral for short-term loans and to facilitate many other transactions. In China, the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, the state news agency Xinhua said it was time for a "de-Americanized world."
U.S. stocks were buoyed by prospects of a deal. The S&P 500 Index closed up 0.41 percent, while the Nasdaq Composite Index ended 0.62 percent higher.
The government shutdown, in its 14th day Monday, is beginning to weigh on the economy. The hundreds of thousands of federal employees who have been temporarily thrown out of work are likely to get back pay when the standoff is resolved.
But they aren't getting paid now, forcing many to dial back on personal spending and cancel holiday travel plans.
The crisis is only the latest in a series of budget battles in recent years that have repeatedly spooked investors and consumers.
The uncertainty has weighed on the economy and boosted the unemployment rate by 0.6 of a percentage point, or the equivalent of 900,000 jobs since late 2009, according to a new estimate by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a think tank.
Foreign leaders and business executives have urged Washington to resolve the crisis before it does further damage.
"This is all bad for America, bad for the economy, bad for job growth, bad for consumer confidence, and the quicker we get it resolved, the better," said Terry Lundgren, chief executive of retailer Macy's Inc.
Any agreement that would come in the following days would not resolve disagreements over long-term spending and the Affordable Care Act that led to the standoff in the first place.
Despite the objections of tea party-faction conservatives, many Republicans are eager to move the discussion away from "Obamacare" and toward possible spending cuts.
"All of us now are talking about spending, which is where we should have been in the first place," Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said on MSNBC.
Republicans in the Senate are pushing to include one slight modification to the Affordable Care Act, which would toughen income verification for those seeking health insurance subsidies under the law. It was unclear what Democrats would get in return for that concession.
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Throughout the shutdown, Obama has said Republicans must agree to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling before the two sides can begin talks on spending or tweaks to his Affordable Care Act.
That position has not changed.
"We will not pay a ransom for Congress reopening the government and raising the debt limit," the White House said on Monday.
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