The White House and Republican congressional leaders moved toward common ground Thursday on raising the nation’s debt limit and reopening the partially shuttered government, trading ideas and engaging in lengthy private talks for the first time since parts of the government ran out of money Oct. 1.
Both sides emerged from a meeting at the White House with cautiously optimistic statements and a promise to keep talking, the first such opening in weeks. Eager for any sign of progress, particularly on the threat of default on the government’s debt, stock markets soared. The Dow Jones industrial average jumped 323 points.
A White House statement had a carefully upbeat slant after the session with Republicans from the House of Representatives: “After a discussion about potential paths forward, no specific determination was made. The president looks forward to making continued progress with members on both sides of the aisle.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., had the same tone, saying, “We had a very useful meeting.” Without providing details, Cantor said each side would talk to its supporters and “hopefully we see a way forward after that.” House aides said the talks probably would cover both the possibility of extending the government’s borrowing authority and reopening the rest of the government.
Republicans kicked off the day by offering a six-week increase in the government’s debt ceiling in exchange for a pledge from Obama to negotiate budget and health care issues. That proposal wouldn’t reopen the parts of the government that have been shut down since Oct. 1.
Senate Democratic leaders were lukewarm to the idea of just extending the debt ceiling. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he wanted to see exactly what the House was offering, and that he wouldn’t negotiate as long as parts of the government remained shut.
But no one was ruling out talking and negotiating, a change of tone in what had been a stalemate marked by defiant and repeated talking points.
The key players were motivated by a host of developments, some political, some financial. Markets were sending strong messages that they were getting nervous as the Oct. 17 debt deadline neared. Polls showed public approval of Republicans at a low point unseen in decades, and Democrats weren’t faring a lot better. Republicans’ approval sank to 28 percent in a new Gallup poll, the worst showing for either party since Gallup started asking such questions 21 years ago.
As House Republicans met privately in the morning, some conservatives protested that the debt ceiling increase didn’t have matching spending cuts. Other Republicans, eager to get the crisis resolved, urged a new debt limit without strings. But any outcry was more muted than usual, and after the meeting, leaders made their bid.
"We’re going to offer legislation that will offer a temporary increase in the debt ceiling to allow us some time to continue this conversation," said Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama would welcome a plan to raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached. "If a clean debt-limit bill is passed, he would likely sign it,” Carney said.
He was flanked by a new visual, a chart comparing “some Republicans” who’ve questioned the effects of a debt ceiling default with “financial experts” who’ve warned that it would be costly to the economy.
Among those targeted were Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. They were countered by Fed chief Ben Bernanke, investor Warren Buffett and others.
Carney said Obama still wanted Congress to vote to reopen the government also, but he didn’t say the two measures had to come together.
Senate Democrats met separately with Obama at the White House for an hour and 45 minutes. Afterward, Reid was careful in describing his reaction to the House plan, which would suspend the debt-limit ceiling until Nov. 22 – just before Thanksgiving and coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
“Let’s wait and see what the House does,” Reid said. “When they send us something, we’ll look at it, as clearly and as closely as we can.”
Reid seemed to throw one wrench into the mix. Asked whether he’d buy the Republican proposal to negotiate before the government reopens, Reid said, “Not going to happen.”
Senate Republicans are scheduled to meet with Obama on Friday morning. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has been trying to fashion a compromise plan. It might include giving government agencies more ability to move money around rather than be subjected to automatic spending cuts, or sequester. Collins also is floating ideas about changing the Affordable Care Act, familiarly known as Obamacare, though apparently without repealing it.
Democrats were encouraged because Republican leaders weren’t talking about delaying or repealing Obamacare.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wouldn’t discuss the specifics of how far he’d be willing to go.
“I don’t want to put anything on the table. I don’t want to take anything off the table,” he said. “That’s why we want to have this conversation.”
The impetus for the latest offer came from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who’s been floating a debt ceiling plan that would require lawmakers to find ways to make significant budget cuts.
Ryan acknowledged that Democrats are concerned with automatic spending cuts known as the sequester that are due to increase in coming years. Those cuts could mean sharp reductions in domestic programs.
“If Mr. Obama decides to talk, he’ll find that we actually agree on some things,” Ryan wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece Wednesday. “For example, most of us agree that gradual, structural reforms are better than sudden, arbitrary cuts.”
“For my Democratic colleagues, the discretionary spending levels in the Budget Control Act are a major concern. And the truth is, there’s a better way to cut spending. We could provide relief from the discretionary spending levels in the Budget Control Act in exchange for structural reforms to entitlement programs.”
Boehner suggested that everything is open for discussion with Obama. “I would hope that the president will look at this as an opportunity to move halfway . . . to what he has demanded,” he said.
By David Lightman and Lesley Clark
McClatchy Washington Bureau