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Now, Congress down to its last strike to avoid debt-ceiling default

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In short, months of negotiation have come down to a situation where the Senate has one shot to get it right – a compromise that will pass both the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House in three days. At a time when even the speaker of the House appears uncertain what his caucus will or will not support, it is a Herculean task.

“We all know the Senate is the only way out of this mess,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York Friday night.

But even getting a proposal through the Senate appears to be a big reach, since any bill would need at least seven GOP votes to reach the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada introduced a plan earlier this week that would cut spending by $2.2 trillion over 10 years and raise the debt ceiling through 2012 immediately. But Republicans, burned by similar bargains in the past, want assurances that those cuts will, in fact, take effect – hence their insistence on an accompanying balanced-budget amendment.

Behind the political theater on the floor, negotiations have been ongoing for weeks both within the Senate and between the Senate and House leaders over how to resolve this crisis.

Senator Reid and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, while not close friends, have developed a strong, working relationship. Unusually, they have a “nonaggression pact,” which means that neither one will campaign against the other. They speak several times a day and recently collaborated over how to improve a “last choice” proposal by Senator McConnell that would give the president a fast-track option to raise the debt limit with the support of only 34 senators.

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