Talks between White House and House break down, action shifts to Senate

David Lightman,Lesley Clark

With less than week to go until the federal government faces a possible default, talks between the White House and House of Representatives Republicans broke down Saturday.

The future of any compromise shifted to the Senate, largely to two wily, veteran negotiators, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, 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,” Reid said. “Nothing conclusive, but I hope that our talking is some solace to the American people and the world.” He added that any deal was “a long ways away.”

Senate Democrats, though, offered a less optimistic take late Saturday after Reid and other Democratic Senate leaders talked strategy at the White House with President Barack Obama for more than an hour. They were joined by Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors and Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said the senators and the White House reviewed a number of options, but concluded that “while Democrats remain united, Republicans have yet to coalesce behind a clear negotiating position.” The aide said Obama and the senators agreed that talks between Senate Democrats and Republicans should continue, but said the Democratic position remains the same: “Democrats are willing to negotiate on anything Republicans want to discuss, as soon as we reopen the government and pay our bills.”

The government is expected to start running out of ways to pay its debts Thursday, compounding the problem that 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. Momentum that had been building all week fizzled, and the day was marked by round after round of public finger-pointing and posturing.

The momentum started to stall Friday when President Barack Obama essentially rejected a House Republican debt limit plan. Saturday, angry House of Representatives 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,” said 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 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 January 31.

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 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 chances.

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 were still needed—and that’s seen as highly unlikely.

By David Lightman and Lesley Clark
McClatchy Washington Bureau