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US debt ceiling negotiations push towards critical default deadline

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By Moira Warburton and Katharine Jackson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic and Republican negotiators said they were hopeful of reaching a deal to raise the federal government’s $31.4 trillion debt ceiling and avert a disastrous default, with talks expected to resume on Saturday.

Time is tight. The Treasury Department on Friday said the government would run short of funds to pay all its bills on June 5 without congressional action, a slightly later but firmer deadline than its prior forecast of default as early as June 1.

And any deal in principle between Democratic President Joe Biden and top congressional Republican Kevin McCarthy will be the start of what could easily be a week-long process of shepherding legislation through the narrowly and bitterly divided Congress.

Hardline Republicans in the House of Representatives have threatened to block any bill that does not meet their expectations, including sharp spending cuts.

Progressive Democrats have also threatened to withhold support for some of the compromises raised, particularly around imposing new work requirements on federal anti-poverty programs.

“It’s very close and I’m optimistic,” Biden told reporters on Friday.

Republican negotiator Patrick McHenry said he concurred with Biden, although he said more negotiations were needed.

“I’m hopeful,” he told reporters late Friday. “I’ve rarely used that term in the last 12 days.”

Republicans control the House by a 222-213 margin, while Democrats hold a 51-49 Senate majority, leaving a narrow path to pass any agreement by the Democratic president and Republican speaker into law.

Republicans have sought to sharply curb government spending over the coming 10 years in order to slow the growth of the U.S. debt, which is now equal to the annual output of the economy.

But the tentative agreement would likely fall well short of their goal.

The two sides have tentatively reached an agreement that would raise the debt ceiling by enough to cover the country’s borrowing needs through the November 2024 presidential election.

It would boost spending on the military and veterans’ care, and cap it for many discretionary domestic programs, according to sources familiar with the talks.

STICKING POINTS

Republicans have rejected Biden’s proposed tax increases, and neither side has shown a willingness to take on the fast-growing health and retirement programs that will drive up debt sharply in the coming years.

Biden’s signature infrastructure and green-energy laws would remain intact, while the Internal Revenue Service would see its recent budget increase scaled back slightly.

But safety-net programs remain a sticking point. Republicans want to stiffen work requirements for the Medicaid health plan for the poor and the SNAP food assistance program. Democrats say that would create more barriers for people who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Both programs expanded dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic but have been scaled back in recent months.

A failure by Congress to raise its self-imposed debt ceiling before June 5 could trigger a default that would shake financial markets and send the United States into a deep recession.

Several credit-rating agencies have said they have put the United States on review for a possible downgrade, which would push up borrowing costs and undercut its standing as the backbone of the global financial system.

A similar 2011 standoff led Standard & Poor’s to downgrade its rating on U.S. debt, hammering markets and sending the government’s borrowing costs higher.

(Reporting by Moira Warburton and Katharine Jackson; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone and Frances Kerry)

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