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As Deadline Looms, Debt Deal Eludes Congress

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Four days before a deadline to raise the federal debt ceiling, President Obama stepped before reporters this morning and urged Congress to get moving.

President BARACK OBAMA: There are a lot of crises in the world that we can't always predict or avoid hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks. This isn't one of those crises. The power to solve this is in our hands. And on a day when we've been reminded how fragile the economy already is, this is one burden we can lift ourselves.

INSKEEP: And in the next few days we may find out how fragile or durable our political system is. There's a lot of desperate activity in the House and Senate today. Senate Democrats say they're moving forward with a bill. House Republicans trying again to round up votes for theirs. And we're going to talk about all this with NPR's Ari Shapiro, who's at the White House.

Ari, good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What leverage does the president have to move either house at this point?

SHAPIRO: You know, not a whole lot. As one political analyst I spoke to yesterday said, the president has fired every arrow in his quiver. At this point the only real impact he can have is signing a bill.

So we heard him making this appeal in the White House this morning, but in many ways the appeal sounded like the speeches that he had given in the days leading up to this.

There's a reason he had been out of the public eye this week. I'm not sure that there is a whole lot more arm-twisting he can do that he hasn't done already to get this over the finish line.

INSKEEP: There's also the matter of arm-twisting going on in the House and Senate right now.

SHAPIRO: Oh yeah. Last night we expected that House Republicans would vote to pass House Speaker John Boehner's bill and then it would to the Senate, where it would die. But at the last minute, Boehner realized he didn't have the votes in his own party, and so there was this frantic scramble. The House clerk brought up a bill to name a post office instead of the debate over the deficit the debt ceiling bill. And at 10:30 and night the leadership in the Republican House realized they still didn't have the votes. They're going to try again today. But this is the second day in a row that they've had to go back and tweak the bill in hopes of getting enough Republicans to support it, so they can send it to the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says it will be killed.

INSKEEP: And when we talk about the Senate, both Senate leaders, Republican and Democratic, have made statements this morning. Harry Reid says he's going to take up a bill, the Democratic version of the bill that would raise the debt ceiling. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell came out and said the Democrats were not being serious. Both rather sharp statements.

Do you have any sense that things are being a little more productive behind the scenes?

SHAPIRO: I don't have any evidence of that. One hopes that as the deadline nears, people are getting serious about this. President Obama keeps saying it's time to start paying attention to what's good for the country and stop paying attention to what's good for party.

Everyone keeps saying, oh, at any minute that's going to happen. We have no indication that it is actually happening. Deadlines focus the mind. This deadline has been getting closer and closer every single day.

As you mentioned, we're now four days away, and everybody can describe a lot of different paths that would get the U.S. out of this problem. Nobody seems to be going down those paths right now.

INSKEEP: And the president also said in a statement this morning that he did not think the parties were miles apart. There is a variety of elements you could throw into a package that people could vote for or not. But at the same time, Ari Shapiro, I'd like to know what sense you have at the White House of what kinds of preparations the administration is making for the possibility that nothing gets passed by August 2nd.

SHAPIRO: Well, there will still be 60 cents on the dollar coming in after August 2nd, and so the question is, how does the U.S. spend those 60 cents for every dollar that it owes?

The Treasury Department is making those kinds of decisions right now. At some point between now and Tuesday, if there's no resolution, there will probably be a public description of what will be paid first and what will not be paid. The White House doesn't want to go down that path and they're still focusing on their optimism that something somehow will get done in time.

INSKEEP: Ari, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro speaking with us on this morning when President Obama urged Democrats and Republicans to agree on a plan. House Republicans are trying again to pass their bill. Senate Democrats say they will begin action on their bill today, hoping to get to some kind of a vote by Tuesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.