Obama, lawmakers postpone crucial budget meeting

President says he still holds hope for progress in 'the next few hours'

Obama visiting with furloughed federal workers while they volunteer at a Martha's Table kitchen on Monday.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had been scheduled to hold crunch talks in the White House at 3 p.m. Monday with the key players in negotiations over the country's fiscal impasse: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio; and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

But the White House said the meeting was postponed in order to give Senate party leaders more time to resolve their differences. It was not immediately clear how long the delay would last.

On Monday evening, Sen. Reid said "tremendous progress" had been made toward addressing the debt limit and a deal to fund the federal government, but added "we are not there yet."

Obama said after the postponement that there seemed to be some progress on fiscal impasse negotiations taking place in the Senate — but he warned that the United States could still default on its debts if Republicans are unwilling to set aside partisan concerns.

"My hope is that a spirit of cooperation will move us forward in the next few hours," Obama said. 

However, "we stand a good chance of defaulting" unless real progress is made this week in the Senate and House of Representatives and if Republicans continue to refuse to bend on their partisan positions, he said.

The president made his remarks when he left the White House to visit Martha's Table, a facility that provides meals for low-income families. A number of government workers, furloughed by the government shutdown, have been volunteering for the organization.

Lawmakers have remained deadlocked for weeks over two normally routine pieces of legislation that have become entangled in disputes over Obama's health-care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and overall government spending. Congress' failure to pass a bill temporarily funding the government led to the partial shutdown on Oct. 1. If Congress does not approve a separate measure increasing the debt ceiling — the amount of money the federal government is allowed to borrow — the Obama administration says it will not be able to pay its bills, risking default.

Obama said Monday that a debt default would send interest rates shooting up and that the damage to the economy could be severe "if we don't make sure that the government's paying its bills — and that has to be decided this week."

Click here for more coverage of the government shutdown

Reid and McConnell spoke by phone Sunday but failed to agree on a deal to raise the nation's borrowing authority past the current $16.7 trillion limit or reopen the government. 

Congress is racing the clock, with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warning that the U.S. will exhaust its ability to pay the bills on Thursday.

The two Senate leaders — veteran senators hardened by several budget disputes and years of negotiations — are at an impasse over yet another source of fiscal fighting: the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration and whether to undo or change them as part of a budget deal.

Democrats are pressing for higher allocations, while Republicans want to keep spending at the deficit-cutting level of the 2011 law, the result of that year's high-stakes budget battle.

Wire services 

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