(Updates with more quotes, background)

By Steve Holland and Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON, Oct 15 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Tuesday the frantic stop-and-go effort in Congress to avoid a debt default and end a government shutdown is "a mess" as a gloomy mood descended over the White House with time running out to a Thursday deadline.

Obama, who is to meet Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Wednesday, and his Democratic backers stressed there is still time to avoid a historic default even as efforts to reach a deal in Congress floundered on Capitol Hill.

"My expectation is that it does get solved, but we don't have a lot of time," Obama told WABC in New York. "So what I'm suggesting to congressional leaders is, let's not do any posturing, let's not try to save face, let's not worry about politics, do what's right."

The president seemed hopeful in television interviews he gave in late morning, but those hopes were dashed later in the day when Republicans who control the House of Representatives failed to muster support for alternatives to a Senate plan that had bipartisan support.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, emerging from White House talks with Obama, looked glum, as did other House Democratic leaders Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn, speaking in dire tones about the potential for a default.

Americans will pay higher interest rates on student loans, car payments and credit card bills, Pelosi said.

"This is what is at stake here," she said.

Obama's public schedule has been pared down to only events pointing up the need to reopen the government after a shutdown of 15 days and counting. Monday he visited a charity food pantry where furloughed workers are volunteering and helped make sandwiches.

In recent days Obama has tamped down some of his more harsher partisan rhetoric, dropping the "gun to the head" metaphors, in an apparent effort to encourage some semblance of goodwill.

He is still making a point of blaming the shutdown and threat of a debt default on his opponents, saying conservative Tea Party Republicans made "a very extreme decision to use very extreme tactics" that moderate Republicans are struggling to overcome.

"And what we've seen as a result is the kind of mess that we're seeing today," Obama told WABC.

Of trying to work out a compromise with House of Representative Speaker John Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, Obama stated the obvious: That the more conservatives see Boehner working with him, the worse it is for the speaker among his Republican caucus.

"It weakens him," Obama said. "So there have been repeated situations where we have agreements, then he goes back and it turns out that he can't control his caucus. So the challenge here is can you deliver on agreements that are made."

Behind the scenes, White House officials have talked to both sides in the political battle but insist Obama is not negotiating even though he appeared to be giving their blessing to a Senate plan that contained small changes to Obama's signature healthcare law.

White House spokesman Jay Carney, pressed on the issue at his daily briefing for reporters, said Obama has remained firm in his position of not making concessions in exchange for raising the U.S. debt limit.

"It depends on what you mean by 'negotiate,'" said Carney. "He's been having conversations with lawmakers. What he will not do ... is give the Tea Party its ideological agenda in exchange for Congress opening the government or Congress raising the debt ceiling so that the United States doesn't default."

Obama has seen his own public approval ratings take a hit during the current fiscal stalemate but what he and his aides are most concerned about is the potential damage to the U.S. economy, with Fitch Ratings warning it could cut the U.S. credit rating from AAA.

"I'm holding out hope that we can get this done in the next couple of days," Obama told Univision's Los Angeles affiliate. "We need to because over the next several days we're going to lose the capacity to pay our bills and our borrowing. And that could affect our credit rating and have all kinds of adverse impact on our economy."

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Sandra Maler and Jackie Frank)

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