WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama opened talks with House Republicans on Thursday about their plan to lift the federal debt limit through Thanksgiving, raising hopes that Washington would avert its first default on the national debt.
But after a 90-minute meeting at the White House, the two sides remained at odds over how and when to end the government shutdown — now in its 11th day — with Obama insisting that Republicans reopen federal agencies before negotiations over broader budget issues can begin.
In the Senate, top Republicans began crafting a proposal that would reopen the government and raise the federal debt limit for as long as three months — an approach closer to the terms Obama has set to end the standoff.
The developments meant that bipartisan negotiations were suddenly under way on two separate tracks Thursday after weeks of stalemate. Major questions remain, however, about the path ahead.
Both sides described Obama's evening session with House Republicans as a "good meeting" and said talks will continue. "The president's goal remains to ensure we pay the bills we've incurred, reopen the government and get back to the business of growing the economy," the White House said in a statement.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, left the session and returned to the Capitol without speaking to reporters. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the meeting was "clarifying," even though it did not produce a resolution.
"He didn't say yes. He didn't say no," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "We're continuing to negotiate this evening."
White House officials were careful not to characterize the meeting as a negotiation, after the president spent weeks publicly and privately declaring that he would not negotiate over lifting the debt ceiling. According to a Democrat familiar with the meeting, Obama told the speaker to come back with proposals for reopening the government but reiterated that he would not make policy concessions.
Republicans, however, did describe the process as a negotiation. The 20 House Republicans gathered in the Roosevelt Room with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and other senior officials.
A similar huddle is slated for late this morning when Obama will host Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the Senate Republican Conference.
With the nation set to run out of money to pay its bills on Oct. 17, the stock market soared Thursday on signs that an end to the impasse may be at hand. The Dow Jones Industrial Average shot up more than 300 points to close at 15,126, recovering most of the value it had lost since the shutdown began Oct. 1. The Nasdaq and Standard & Poor's 500 Index also rose more than 2 percent.
The House proposal that emerged Thursday would push off the threat of default until Nov. 22, but it would not end the shutdown, an idea that fell flat in the Senate with members of both parties. For the first time since the brinkmanship began in early September, McConnell waded into the fray, holding meetings with his rank-and-file members to develop a competing Senate proposal.
The package was being assembled by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said she is also in talks with Senate Democrats.
"I was surprised that the House decided to deal only with the debt limit and not with the continued closure of government," Collins said. "I think that we have to deal with both issues and we need to do so quickly."
Senate Democrats were intrigued by Collins' proposal but unhappy with its demand for Democratic concessions. Those would include the repeal of a tax on medical devices that helps fund Obama's health care law, the Affordable Care Act, and new income-verification procedures for people who receive tax subsidies to buy health insurance on the law's new exchanges.
In addition, Collins' proposal would maintain deep cuts known as sequestration through at least March, although it would grant agencies greater flexibility to decide where the cuts would fall. Sequestration remains a red flag for the White House and many Democrats, who want to restore funding for domestic programs.
The Senate, meanwhile, is on track to vote Saturday on a separate Democratic proposal that would suspend enforcement of the debt limit through 2014. It was unclear late Thursday whether that measure would proceed, or whether it would be replaced if an agreement with Republicans emerged.