WASHINGTON — With less than week to go until the federal government faces an historic default, talks between the White House and Republicans in the House of Representatives broke down Saturday, leaving the fate of a deal in the Senate’s hands.
The future of any compromise Saturday shifted largely to two wily, veteran negotiators, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. They, along with Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., met Saturday for the first time to discuss a way forward.
“The conversations were extremely cordial but very preliminary, of course. Nothing conclusive but I hope that our talking is some solace to the American people and the world,” said Reid. He added that any deal was “a long ways away.”
The government is expected to reach its debt limit Thursday, and parts of the government have been closed since Oct. 1.
While Reid and McConnell were polite and guardedly hopeful, most of those at the Capitol were glum. The momentum that had been building all week fizzled, and the day was marked by round after round of public finger-pointing and posturing.
The gloom was triggered Friday, when President Barack Obama essentially rejected a House Republican debt limit plan. Saturday, angry House Republican leaders gave colleagues a somber assessment of where things stand. They said they were now awaiting the president’s next move and that no further talks were scheduled.
At the same hour, Reid and other senators were meeting, and afterward Reid said, “This should be seen as something very positive, even though we don’t have anything done yet.”
It was not clear where McConnell and Reid, two long-time legislative combatants, could find common ground. Democrats have insisted the government reopen before they negotiate on the budget. Republicans are reluctant to agree to a higher debt limit unless there are significant spending cuts.
Senators believe that the differences have narrowed to the point where disagreements can be broadly listed on a sheet of paper, meaning compromise is possible.
“There is a reason to believe that ultimately we will work it out,” said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
Publicly, the sniping escalated Saturday.The Senate took a test vote on moving ahead with a Democratic plan to extend the debt limit through the end of next year. Republicans blocked the maneuver, essentially killing the measure.
House Republicans expressed doubts about Senate Republican ideas. House Democrats mounted a public effort to force a vote on reopening the government, angering Republicans. The White House was largely silent.
“Congress must do its job and raise the debt limit to pay the bills we have incurred and avoid default. It is unfortunate that the common sense, clean debt limit increase proposed by Senate Democrats was refused a yes or no vote today,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
“Congress needs to move forward with a solution that reopens the government and allows us to pay our bills so we can move on to the business of achieving a broader budget deal that creates jobs, grows the economy and strengthens the middle class.”
Perhaps because it was a Saturday, and markets don’t open until Monday, the urgency that had dominated talk and intrigue throughout the preceding week ebbed. The House took some routine votes, then left until Monday night.
Senators spent part of their day considering a proposal authored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She proposed reopening the government immediately and providing six months of funding. The debt limit would be extended through Jan. 31, 2014.
Collins would delay the medical device tax, a plan that has in the past won bipartisan support. The tax helps pay for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. She also proposes giving government agencies more flexibility to deal with automatic spending cuts, or sequestration. Many Democrats, though, balked, saying her budget was not spending enough, and the White House signaled it was cool to the idea.
So were House Republicans. “I charitably am not thrilled with what I’m reading,” said House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
Democrats were also digging in. House Democrats mounted a bid to force the House to take up a government funding bill, an effort given little chance.
Collins, however, defended her proposal in a release issued Saturday afternoon.
“Despite Sen. Harry Reid’s unfortunate dismissal of the 6-point plan that I have advanced with Sens. Lisa Murkowski [R-Alaska] and Kelly Ayotte [R-N.H.], it continues to attract bipartisan support,” she said. “For example, six Senate Republicans and six Senate Democrats met twice today to discuss how we could move forward with the plan or some version of it. These meetings were constructive and give me hope that a bipartisan solution to reopen government and prevent default is within our reach.”
Democrats began circulating a petition to get the bill considered. But it needs a majority of House members — meaning that if all Democrats sign, 17 Republicans are still needed — and that’s seen as highly unlikely.
Distributed by MCT Information Services