The House and Senate yesterday approved differing versions of a one-month, $80 billion extension of the government's debt ceiling to avert financial default on Friday and to allow more time for Congress to reach a compromise on balanced-budget legislation.
Shortly after the Senate approved its measure last night, the White House issued a statement saying, "The president accepts the obvious sentiment of both houses of Congress, but he will continue to urge Congress to deal with our federal deficits once and for all."
Action came first in the Democratic-controlled House, which approved its version, 300 to 121. Then the Republican-led Senate modified the bill and approved it by voice vote.
Senate leaders contended their version was intended to accomplish the same purpose as the House bill, but differences will have to be ironed out today to avoid a default Friday, when the government must make a $16 billion interest payment on the national debt.
Through most of yesterday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) delayed action, thus putting pressure on House-Senate conferees to negotiate a budget compromise within the next few days.
Senate conferees, meeting for about six hours, reported substantial progress on most key issues, indicating an agreement may be within reach.
At issue are conflicting versions of legislation to force a balanced budget over the next four or five years by requiring spending cutbacks if fixed deficit targets are not met. The vital debt-ceiling extension has been attached to the budget measure in a political attempt to force Congress to address the deficit issue.
Through most of yesterday, White House officials insisted that President Reagan did not want a short-term extension of the debt-ceiling, although they stopped short of saying he would veto it.
One White House official, noting that default would occur on the eve of Reagan's departure for the U.S.-Soviet summit in Geneva, said there appeared to be "no alternative" to the extension.
"We can't get on the plane and get off at Geneva and find out that nobody can cash their checks," the official said.
Despite misgivings about defense-spending cuts that would be required by both House and Senate versions of the budget measure, Reagan has supported passage of a bill close to the Senate version as part of a long-term extension of the debt ceiling. The Senate would require less cutting of defense than would the House.
House approval of the short-term extension, which was passed with support of leaders of both parties, reflected concern over the national embarrassment a default would cause as Reagan was preparing to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev Nov. 19 and 20.
"We could have a chaotic situation . . . at a time when the president of the United States is going to a summit meeting," with a resulting "weakening" of his position in the negotiations, said Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). It would be "ridiculous," said Majority Whip Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.).
But Dole appeared less impressed with the summit argument. "The summit's a good excuse . . . . What are we going to do next time?" he asked.
The House-passed debt bill would give the government authority to borrow an additional $80 billion, allowing it to increase its debt from the current level of $1.82 trillion to $1.9 trillion. That additional money would take the government to Dec. 13, when another debt-limit extention, either long-term or short-term, would be needed to avoid default.
The change made by the Senate would have the new borrowing authority run out Dec. 6 to take into account money that the government would need on hand for operations after hitting the new debt limit. Senate leaders specified that the next date for possible default, meaning the next target for passage of the budget measure, would be the same.
Under both versions of the bill, Social Security and other trust funds would be compensated for losses from an earlier fund-shuffling undertaken by the administration to stay within the debt-ceiling.
While the Senate had been reluctant to approve an extension, fearing it would undercut pressure for enactment of the budget measure, Senate action appeared assured when two principal sponsors of the budget measure, Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), said they could support it.
"I believe you can't have a cloud of fiscal collapse hanging over the president's head when he goes to Geneva," Gramm said.
Rudman agreed and criticized Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger for opposing provisions that would require cutbacks in defense as well as domestic spending. If the economy crumbles under the weight of heavy deficits, "the Defense Department will face cuts not just through the fat but through the bone," he said.
Rudman's comments reflected widespread concern in Congress that the administration's hard-line position against defense-spending cuts is making compromise difficult.
Expressing confidence agreement can be reached, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said the only thing that could prevent an accord is if Reagan "bitterly opposes" compromise.
But there appears to be increasing pressure for agreement within Congress, regardless of White House objections. A Reagan veto could "take everyone off the hook," said one congressional aide, speaking of members' reluctance to oppose the antideficit measure despite misgivings about the problems that its implementation would pose.
Meanwhile, the Senate gave final congressional approval to a separate measure extending spending authority for government agencies until Dec. 12. The continuing resolution, approved earlier by the House, is needed because Congress has passed only two of the 13 regular appropriations bills for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. Reagan is expected to sign it.
The House and Senate also approved an omnibus bill extending other programs due to expire at the end of the week, including the 16-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes.
Attempting to keep up the pressure for a balanced-budget agreement, the administration continued to warn of financial crisis, including a moratorium on issuance of government checks, if Congress has not increased the government's borrowing power by Friday.
"The government would continue to function, but it would temporarily stop paying its bills," Speakes said. "We are not going to issue checks that will bounce." Among those who would not receive checks are federal employes, recipients of government benefits, state and local governments and providers of government-paid services.
Office of Management and Budget Director James C. Miller III said alternative debt-financing methods, including sale of gold reserves, have been rejected.