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Leaders reach 11th-hour debt deal; passage in Congress still uncertain

Compromise ties spending cuts to increase in borrowing limit

President Obama said the deal, which would cut spending and allow borrowing until 2013, “will begin to lift the cloud of debt and the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over our economy.” President Obama said the deal, which would cut spending and allow borrowing until 2013, “will begin to lift the cloud of debt and the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over our economy.” (Jewel Samad/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Donovan Slack and Theo Emery
Globe Staff / August 1, 2011

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WASHINGTON - President Obama reached a sweeping bipartisan accord with congressional leaders yesterday that would cut trillions from the national deficit while raising the country’s debt limit, potentially averting a catastrophic default tomorrow on the nation’s debt.

The agreement must pass both chambers of Congress, a prospect that still is uncertain. Party leaders planned to speak to rank-and-file lawmakers today and bring the measure up for a vote as soon as possible. House consideration is likely today.

The president conceded it is not the deal he would have preferred, but he said, “This compromise does make a serious down payment on the deficit reduction we need and gives each party a strong incentive to get a balanced plan done before the end of the year.

“Most important, it will allow us to avoid default and end the crisis that Washington imposed on the rest of America,’’ he said. “It will begin to lift the cloud of debt and the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over our economy.’’

The deal would increase the country’s borrowing limit by at least $2 trillion, alleviating the looming cash shortage and covering spending until 2013, a key demand of Democrats. It would also cut spending by a roughly equal amount, as much as $2.5 trillion, a key demand of Republicans.

The measure would create a 12-member bipartisan congressional committee to identify by November many of those deficit cuts, which could include savings and new revenues through overhauls of the tax code and entitlement programs such as Medicare. If the committee fails to agree or Congress fails to pass the panel’s recommendations, cuts will automatically be triggered.

The automatic cuts would hit defense spending and domestic programs, including payments for Medicare providers, but not Medicare beneficiaries. Some of the details were described by two aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity and warned the final numbers could change.

Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio told GOP House members about the deal in a conference call yesterday evening. In the call, he said that it was a less-than-ideal agreement but that the GOP had stood its ground and there was nothing in the deal that flew in the face of Republican principles, according to excerpts released by his office.

“Since day one of this Congress, we’ve gone toe-to-toe with the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Senate on behalf of our people we were sent here to represent,’’ he said. “Now listen, this isn’t the greatest deal in the world. But it shows how much we’ve changed the terms of the debate in this town.’’

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, was the first congressional leader to announce his support of the plan. He took to the Senate floor last night to announce that the deal was complete and tell rank-and-file senators that they would hear more details this morning.

“I know this agreement won’t make every Republican happy. It certainly won’t make every Democrat happy, either,’’ he said. “But both parties gave more ground than they wanted and neither side got as much as it had hoped. But that is the essence of compromise.’’

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican in the Senate, said senators in his party also could expect to learn more at a meeting today, but he sounded confident that GOP senators would support the measure.

“I think I can say with a high degree of confidence that there is now a framework to review that will ensure significant cuts in Washington spending, and we can assure the American people tonight that the United States of America will not for the first time in our history default on its obligations.’’

The House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, said she planned to meet with Democratic House members this morning. She stopped short of giving the plan her public endorsement.

“We’ll all have to take a look,’’ she said. “We all may not be able to support it, or none of us may be able to support it, but we’ll wait and see and we’re open to what comes down because, again, the stakes are very high here.’’

Some Republicans may not fall in line with McConnell in supporting the measure. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican whom conservatives have sharply criticized in his home state, said that he is not sold on what he has heard.

“I don’t see many conservatives getting behind this, quite frankly,’’ he said on ABC’s “This Week’’ as details began to leak.

Graham said the plan did not go far enough. Instead of “running toward oblivion, we’re walking toward it, and now we need to stop and turn around and go the other way.’’

The only Republican in the Massachusetts delegation, Senator Scott Brown, indicated he will support the agreement, despite the potential for deep reductions in military spending if the committee arrangement fails.

“The trigger only gets triggered if we don’t do our jobs,’’ Brown said. “If you put people in there who are going to make good recommendations and you have a truly bipartisan effort to solve the problem, that trigger will never be’’ pulled.

Representative Edward Markey, Democrat of Malden, said he had not been briefed on the deal and so could not say whether he would support it. He said he is particularly concerned about cuts that may hurt the Massachusetts economy, including those to defense spending and Medicare provider payments.

He also worries about potential cuts to National Institutes of Health grants, which are important to Bay State medical and research institutions.

“It is important to know what’s in the bill specifically,’’ Markey said.

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DonovanSlack. Theo Emery can be reached at temery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @temery.

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