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Conrad prepares debt backup plan for nation

WASHINGTON - Congress is now just five days away from the deadline to raise the federal debt ceiling, and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., echoed growing concerns in Washington on Thursday that neither of the dueling proposals to avoid fiscal crisis will be able to muster enough votes to be enacted.

But Conrad said there's "absolutely" still time to enact a plan by Tuesday, and the possible failures of the two proposals could boost the chances of Republicans and Democrats finally being able to break the ongoing stalemate.

"I know it sounds unusual, but sometimes you have to have deadlock before you have a breakthrough," he said.

No 'assurance'

Conrad said he had a "very active" Thursday, beginning with a morning meeting with staff to discuss the "challenge" associated with the congressional leaders' plans and come up with "alternatives" that could help build support and pass a debt ceiling increase by Tuesday.

The proposal being advanced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has a "one-step" approach and would extend the $14.3 trillion debt limit by $2.4 trillion - enough to get through the 2012 elections as requested President Barack Obama.

It also calls for an immediate $1.2 trillion in spending cuts as a "down payment" to an eventual $1.8 trillion in additional deficit reductions.

The plan being pushed by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has two steps: a $900 billion debt ceiling increase now paired with $917 billion in spending cuts and a future vote to raise the debt ceiling by up to $1.6 trillion more early next year after Congress approves another $1.8 trillion slash to future deficits.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., spoke on the Senate floor Thursday in favor of Boehner's proposal, telling colleagues that after "tremendous debate" about the debt ceiling, "the American people want us to come to an agreement."

But Conrad said both offers would achieve the bulk of their deficit reductions through newly formed congressional committees, which would be tasked with pinpointing a package of cuts and reforms and coming back to Congress with a detailed plan.

"If it's deadlocked or for whatever reason it fails to produce a result, what assurance on the Reid approach do you have that you actually get the savings?" he said. "What assurance on the Boehner approach do you have that you're actually able to extend the debt limit in a few months with all the uncertainty that that would create for the economy?"

Bipartisan plans

Conrad said he spent the day Thursday meeting with his staff, as well as the staff of congressional leaders and the Senate Finance Committee, to come up with "alternatives" if those committees can't achieve their goals and looming concerns over the country's fiscal path lead to another crisis.

The alternatives are still under negotiation, and he said he couldn't go into detail Thursday. But he said the work resulted in some options that he's discussed with Republicans and Democrats, including Senate colleagues and members of the so-called Gang of Six

"I think we've come up with some very constructive ideas," he said.

And those ideas could help Congress reach agreement before the debt limit deadline lapses, Conrad said.

But he said both the Boehner and Reid proposals would probably result in deficit reduction goals "very close" to the plans already advanced by the Gang of Six and Obama's commission for deficit reduction.

Conrad served on both bipartisan groups, which recommended a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases to achieve about $4 trillion in deficit reductions over the next decade.

"Those are the only other places where a bipartisan group negotiated over an extended period and came to a conclusion," he said. "I personally believe that with a new special congressional committee that's in both the Boehner and Reid plans, they'll go through the same exercise and they'll pretty much come to the same conclusion."

Ryan Johnson is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald