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Senators express optimism on budget talks, but hard bargaining remains

October 13, 2013|By Katherine Skiba
  • President Obama meets in the Oval Office with Senate Democratic leaders, left to right, Richard Durbin, Charles Schumer, Harry Reid and Patty Murray.
President Obama meets in the Oval Office with Senate Democratic leaders,… (Martin H. Simon / EPA )

WASHINGTON -- Amid discord over how to solve the nation’s fiscal problems, key senators Sunday held out hope that a deal can be struck before Thursday’s deadline to raise the debt ceiling, after which the federal government, already hobbled by a shutdown, could risk a default.

“I do believe we’re going to see a resolution this week,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the leaders of a bipartisan Senate group that has tried to negotiate a solution to the shutdown of government agencies and the need to lift the debt limit.

“We’re going to keep working and offer our ideas to the leadership,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union”

A plan by Collins would have raised the federal debt limit through Jan. 31, funded federal agencies through March and made minor changes to President Obama’s healthcare law. Senate Democratic leaders have not accepted Collins' proposal although Senate aides say some elements of it could figure in a final deal.

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Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said talks that began Saturday between Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, constituted a “breakthrough.”

Durbin, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said he thought the discussions have “the promise of finding a solution.”

As the senators’ comments made clear, the central issues in the talks have shifted in recent days.

Republicans have backed off their efforts to try to change the healthcare law, while Democrats, feeling they have the upper hand, have pushed a demand of their own: higher spending on domestic programs than allowed under the “sequester,” the across-the-board cuts that took effect earlier this year and are scheduled to deepen on Jan. 15.

Reid wants an agreement to fund federal agencies into January and a longer extension of the government’s ability to borrow money to pay its bills. He also is seeking to soften the next round of sequester cuts.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), appearing on ABC’s “This Week” conceded that significant changes to the Affordable Care Act, as the healthcare law is formally known, were “off the table.”

But he warned against efforts to roll back the sequester. “If you break the spending cuts, you’re not going to get any Republicans in the Senate” to vote for the resulting deal, he said.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, an influential voice in the GOP’s right wing, also insisted that Republicans would not go along with any plan to end the sequester cuts.

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“I can’t imagine you’re going to get Senate Republicans to vote for something that exceeds the sequester caps,” he said on CNN, saying that the size of the debt was the country’s No. 1 problem.        

How to handle the sequester is “one of the sticking points” in the current negotiations, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Schumer, who participated with Reid in Saturday’s negotiations, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he was “cautiously hopeful, optimistic that we can come to an agreement.”

“Neither Democrats or Republicans like the sequester,” he said. “The dispute has been how to undo” it.

But Graham said he worried about a deal being reached in the Senate that could not pass muster with most House Republicans and that would further undermine House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

“Here’s what I’m worried about: a deal coming out of the Senate that a majority of Republicans can’t vote for in the House, that really does compromise Speaker Boehner’s leadership,” Graham said.

“And after all this mess is over, do we really want to compromise  John Boehner as leader of the House? I don’t think so. So I’m not going to vote for any plan that I don’t think can get a majority of Republicans in the House, understanding that defunding Obamacare and delaying it for a year is not a realistic possibility now.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also speaking on “Face the Nation,” warned that Democrats should not overplay their hand.

“If they try to humiliate Republicans, things change in American politics,” he said. If Democrats do so, “it won’t be forgotten,” he said.

“Now’s the time to be magnanimous and sit down and get this thing done.”

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