Deficit talks ratchet up intensity

WASHINGTON — White House and congressional leaders plan to intensify their efforts next week to reach some agreement on a sweeping budget deficit-cutting proposal by July 1, a plan that most lawmakers insist be part of any agreement to raise the nation's debt ceiling.

As many as four days of talks are expected next week among Vice President Joe Biden, Obama administration officials and six key members of Congress, as they look at potentially sweeping cuts and changes in federal spending and revenue-raising.

Lawmakers are cautiously optimistic that they'll succeed. What makes the prospects still uncertain, though, is that some of the details — Medicare, other popular domestic programs and taxes — are rife with political peril.

"The really tough stuff that's left are the big ticket items and philosophical big ticket items. Anything having to do with health care," Biden said after a two-hour meeting Thursday, the group's third session this week.

If the debt limit of $14.3 trillion isn't raised by Aug. 2, the government is expected to run out of borrowing authority. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned that a failure to raise the limit, last increased in February 2010, could trigger financial chaos.

Few expect that deadline to pass without some agreement.

"Reasonable people will prevail. They know we can't take it to the brink," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

They know the stakes are too high. "This is the most important thing happening on Capitol Hill by far," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a leading conservative on the House Appropriations Committee.

There have been strong hints that the two parties are seriously seeking compromise.

"The debt ceiling talks are a game of chicken. The leadership on neither side wants a crash, but neither wants to show the first sign of compromising," said Steven Smith, the director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy in St. Louis.