06/09/2011 05:58 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2011

Deficit Talks Pick Up As Debt Ceiling Deadline Approaches

WASHINGTON -- The White House is rapidly picking up the pace of its bipartisan deficit meetings with lawmakers -- a sign the clock is ticking for negotiators to reach a deal before the government reaches its debt ceiling in early August.

The group, which met Thursday for more than two and a half hours, will meet three more times next week, a White House aide told The Huffington Post. The group, led by Vice President Joe Biden, has only been meeting about once a week since early May in its efforts to reach common ground on a deficit reduction plan tied to a debt limit hike. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has continued to use words like "calamitous" and "catastrophic" to describe what it will happen if Congress doesn't raise the debt limit by Aug. 2, but Republicans say they will only sign off on a deal that includes at least $2.4 trillion in cuts.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), one of six lawmakers participating in the meetings, said negotiators had "much substantive discussion today" and committed to meeting several times next week.

"We believe that many of the problems surrounding the lack of job creation and growth in this country have to do with the fact that there isn't a credible plan to manage down the debt and deficit in this country," Cantor told reporters. "There’s a commitment for next week that we will be engaging, once again, in a robust series of meetings to see if we can achieve a result."

Other participants include Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), House Assistant Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

The Senate's "Gang of Five" also met Thursday to continue work on its own bipartisan deficit-reduction plan. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said that group, which has been meeting for several months longer than Biden's group, is "close to reaching a conclusion." The group brought more than a dozen Senators from both parties into their regularly closed meeting.

"We've reached a natural point at which it seemed like ... it was the next natural step to share what we've been doing with other members and get their reaction," Conrad told reporters.

Biden's meetings have increasingly overshadowed the Senate group -- and created an awkward dynamic with two distinct bipartisan groups working on the same issue -- but Conrad said the Gang of Five will continue to meet.

"I see it as separate," Conrad told reporters, when asked if he sees the Gang of Five as competing with Biden’s group, or as providing a backstop if the vice president's group can't reach a deal.

He also declined to give his take on the work being done by Biden's group. "I can't render any credible judgment on what they're doing because I don't know what they're doing," he said.

The five-member Senate group was previously called the "Gang of Six" until Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) abruptly pulled out last month, citing frustration with the group's lack of progress. Conrad said the group has no plans to replace Coburn, however, because the Oklahoma senator suggested he was taking only a temporary leave.

"There's a feeling that that slot is reserved for him," Conrad said. "He didn’t say he left; he said he's taking a break."

Both debt negotiation groups have been mum on how their deficit reduction packages are shaping up. But Conrad said Thursday that if he had his way, the proposal would cut $5.6 trillion to balance the budget over 10 years, with $100 billion added in as an infrastructure stimulus.