Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, left; Harry Reid of Nevada,… (Michael Reynolds / European…)
Reporting from Washington — Efforts to reach a last-minute deal to stave off a potentially disastrous federal default appeared to make progress late Saturday as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called off a scheduled 1 a.m. Sunday test vote and declared himself newly "optimistic."
Reid (D-Nev.) scheduled a new vote for noon Sunday, saying he wanted to give the parties more time to negotiate. Talks were underway at the White House, he said, and progress was being made toward the Democratic demand for a long-term debt limit increase that would carry the government through the end of 2012.
"I'm glad to see this move toward cooperation and compromise," Reid said. "I hope it bears fruit."
Reid had spent the day trying to persuade Republicans to support some version of his plan; he would need seven to break a filibuster. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was one of a few who sounded ready to work with him.
"We're angry, frustrated and mad here too," she said on the Senate floor. "I would like to suggest that as the hours wind down, we come together as a body here in the Senate and in the House to find a compromise."
Murkowski was one of four Republicans who declined to sign a letter sent by Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, to Reid on Saturday saying the GOP would move forward only if Reid's plan, which would raise the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion and slice the deficit by $2.2 trillion, were scrapped in favor of a more bipartisan approach. And McConnell insisted President Obama join the talks directly.
There were some signs a deal could still be reached in time. Several times during the day, McConnell spoke with Vice President Joe Biden and, after the Republican leader indicated he would not negotiate without the White House at the table, Obama and McConnell also spoke.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) met privately with a coalition of moderate House Republicans whose votes would be needed to secure passage of any compromise.
At the same time, some GOP senators spoke of the need to pull together.
"It's time we start finding common ground," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), in a floor speech that gave shape to the contours of a compromise.
A key issue remains how Congress could force further spending cuts next year, rather than hold another increase in the debt ceiling hostage to a prolonged debate. Democrats and Republicans have been struggling to devise such a trigger mechanism both sides could agree to.
"Somewhere there's a silver bullet," Isakson said. "The Lone Ranger had it. … Why can't the U.S. Congress find it?"
The move by the House early in the day to vote down Reid's bill was payback for Reid's decision to have the Senate reject a bill sponsored by Boehner that narrowly passed the House on Friday evening.
"We are going to let [Reid] know when we defeat it here … that it is not the plan that can gain broad support in the House and the Senate," Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) said of Reid's bill before the vote.
Democrats, a distinct minority in the chamber, were outraged.
Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) said the House's action was intended to throw a "monkey wrench" into any hopes for a compromise.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, lamented the gamesmanship. "The people aren't looking to us for what we can stop," he said. "They're looking to us for what we can do."