DEBT SHOWDOWN

Debt ceiling debate works toward contentious compromise

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Officials familiar with the negotiations said that McConnell had been in frequent contact with Vice President Joe Biden, who has played an influential role across months of negotiations.

Sunday night, President Obama announces the debt ceiling deal has been reached.

The talks were proceeding toward a two-step system for raising the debt limit and cutting spending.

The first step would take place immediately, raising the debt limit by nearly $1 trillion and cutting spending by a slightly larger amount over a decade.

That would be followed by creation of a new congressional committee that would have until the end of November to recommend $1.8 trillion or more in deficit cuts, targeting benefit programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, or overhauling the tax code. Those deficit cuts would allow a second increase in the debt limit, which would be needed by early next year.

If the committee failed to reach its $1.8 trillion target, or Congress failed to approve its recommendations by the end of 2011, lawmakers would then have to vote on a proposed constitutional balanced-budget amendment.

If that failed to pass, automatic spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion would automatically take effect, and the debt limit would rise by an identical amount.

Social Security, Medicaid and food stamps would be exempt from the automatic cuts, but payments to doctors, nursing homes and other Medicare providers could be trimmed, as could subsidies to insurance companies that offer an alternative to government-run Medicare.

Officials describing those steps spoke on condition of anonymity, citing both the sensitivity of the talks and the potential that details could change.

The emerging deal could mark a classic compromise, a triumph of divided government that would let both Obama and Republicans claim they had achieved their objectives.

As the president demanded, the deal would allow the debt limit to rise by enough to tide the Treasury over until after the 2012 elections.

But barring a change, it appeared Obama's proposal to extend the current payroll tax holiday beyond the end of 2011 would not be included, nor his call for extended unemployment benefits for victims of the recession.

Republicans would win spending cuts of slightly more than the increase in the debt limit, as they have demanded. Additionally, tax increases would be off-limits unless recommended by the bipartisan committee that is expected to include six Republicans and six Democrats. The conservative campaign to force Congress to approve a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution would be jettisoned.

Congressional Democrats have long insisted that Medicare and Social Security benefits not be cut, a victory for them in the proposal under discussion. Yet they would have to absorb even deeper cuts in hundreds of federal programs than were included in Reid's bill, which many Democrats supported in a symbolic vote on the House floor on Saturday.

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