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Senate leaders negotiate in federal budget standoff

Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell discuss ways to reopen the government and avert a default on the nation's debt, but progress is unclear.

October 12, 2013|By Michael A. Memoli and Brian Bennett
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, left, with Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Saturday to discuss the government standoff.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, left, with Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)… (Andrew Burton / Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — Efforts to reopen the government and avert a default on the nation's debt rested in the hands of the Senate's top leaders after talks between House Republicans and the White House broke down Saturday.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sat down to negotiate for the first time since the 12-day-old government shutdown began, but there were no indications they had made significant progress. Still, Senate leaders made plans for a rare Sunday session in case they reach a deal, while the House adjourned for the weekend after a brief and at times chaotic session.

Early in the day, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told House Republicans that President Obama had rejected their efforts to enter into more substantive negotiations, according to lawmakers who attended the closed-door session. Obama has insisted he would negotiate over the federal budget with the Republicans only after they first reopened the government and lifted the debt ceiling.

Boehner said it was now up to Senate Republicans to hold firm and extract concessions on the president's healthcare law and federal spending. But Senate Republicans expressed frustration with the apparent indifference of their House counterparts to the political toll that their party has suffered from the shutdown and the threat of a potentially catastrophic default on the nation's debt.

Since McConnell cut a deal last December with Vice President Joe Biden to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, he has largely stayed out of budget talks. With a potentially tough reelection battle that includes a challenge from his right, McConnell has emphasized conservative priorities, such as opposing measures on gun control and immigration reform.

His move to reenter the fray could reflect McConnell's calculation that his ultimate political goal — to lead a Senate with a Republican majority — was imperiled by the hard-line position of Republicans in the House.

House Republicans have seen their leverage erode as Boehner has repeatedly failed to find a plan that could win a majority of his caucus and also be close to one the White House would discuss.

Expressing frustration with the day's maneuvers, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the former vice presidential candidate and House Budget Committee chairman, accused the White House of "trying to cut the House out, and trying to jam us with the Senate."

There were numerous signs that the mood in the Capitol had soured from Friday's cautious optimism. Among them was a procedural tactic deployed by House Democrats to try to force a vote on a bill to reopen the government with no conditions. One by one, Democrats lined up to speak at the microphones. Republicans eventually ended what they denounced as a "show."

The Senate efforts to end the standoff began with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of a dwindling band of GOP moderates, who worked to build support for a compromise plan.

Separately, McConnell made entreaties to Reid. He asked Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to begin informal talks with Democrats. That led to the meeting Saturday involving the two Republicans, Reid and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate's No. 3 Democrat.

The gathering, in Reid's office, lasted an hour.

"The conversation was extremely cordial but very preliminary — nothing conclusive," Reid said at a news conference. "This should be seen as something very positive — even though we don't have anything done yet and there is a long ways to go."

Later in the day, Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic plan to suspend the debt limit through next year.

But senators from both parties said there was an urgent need to pass legislation to raise the nation's borrowing limit as soon as possible before Thursday. The Treasury Department has said that it will no longer be able to borrow money on that day, raising the risk of default.

"This is playing with fire," Schumer said. "I worry on Monday that when the American markets open, maybe because of this vote, that they will start worrying and not only will the stock market go down, but interest rates go up, the value of the U.S. treasuries decline."

Reid and other Democratic leaders briefed Obama on the talks Saturday afternoon; no further talks between Reid and McConnell were expected Saturday night. Aides said the conversations between party leaders remained at an early stage.

Collins has offered a proposal to temporarily raise the debt limit and reopen the government in exchange for delaying a tax on medical devices that is part of Obama's healthcare law. She said that plan continued "to attract bipartisan support" and that she planned to continue to consult with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. But Reid said her plan was "not going anyplace."

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