WASHINGTON — A campaign to persuade the Republican-led House to lift the federal debt limit collapsed in messy failure Tuesday, leaving Washington careering toward a critical deadline, just two days away, with no clear plan for avoiding a government default.
Senate leaders moved quickly to pick up the pieces, saying they were "optimistic" that they could strike a deal to advance an alternative proposal that would raise the debt limit through Feb. 7 and end a government shutdown, now in its third week.
But it was unclear whether an agreement between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could pass the Senate before the Treasury Department exhausts its borrowing power Thursday.
Meeting that deadline would be impossible if Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, or other conservative hard-liners chose to throw up roadblocks, Democrats said. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Republican leaders were leaning on Cruz and his allies to avoid unnecessary delays.
Meanwhile, any bill passed by the Senate would have to go back to the House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and his leadership team showed once again that they had lost all control of their majority.
After trying all day, with increasing desperation, to cobble together a debt-limit plan that could win the support of 217 Republicans, Boehner and his top deputies gave up and abruptly canceled a scheduled vote on the measure Tuesday evening and left the Capitol without further plan or explanation.
"We are done for the night," a weary Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said as he left a marathon session in Boehner's office that began as an airing of complaints from recalcitrant conservatives and soon ballooned into a full-blown emergency session of senior lawmakers and committee chairmen.
The chaos on Capitol Hill was already reverberating through the financial world. U.S. financial markets closed down slightly Tuesday, while Fitch Ratings, the third-largest credit-rating agency, took a step toward a potential downgrade of the government's AAA rating. Fitch warned that "political brinksmanship and reduced financing flexibility" were elevating the risk of default.