Senate Inches Toward Deal, But Obstacles Remain

Senate Inches Toward Deal, But Obstacles Remain

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - October 15, 2013

With the threat of default drawing nearer, the Senate is scrambling to pull together a bipartisan plan to re-open the government and lift the government’s borrowing limit. Tuesday figures to be a critical day in negotiations, with the House's path also uncertain.

Meetings between the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, yielded progress on a proposal that they will introduce to their members on Tuesday, the two lawmakers said.

“Perhaps tomorrow will be a bright day,” Reid said on the Senate floor Monday night. “We’re not quite there yet.” McConnell echoed those sentiments, saying that “substantial progress” had been made that day.

A framework that has emerged from the talks involves funding the government at current levels through mid-January -- when another round of sequester cuts kicks in -- and raising the debt ceiling through mid-February. The agreement might also include the start of a formal conference on the budget by the middle of December. There is still talk over various attachments, such as a stricter income verification system for Obamacare subsidies.

“The two leaders have had a good understanding and a good back-and-forth,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker told reporters after meeting with McConnell and other GOP leaders. Corker said the basic “give and take” revolves around timing, as Republicans would rather have a longer-term funding bill to lock in sequester levels and a shorter-term debt ceiling, and Democrats prefer nearly the opposite.

Corker and other lawmakers involved in the discussions said there is still a question about which chamber would be best suited procedurally to first produce legislation addressing these two fiscal issues.

If the process starts in the Senate, lawmakers there said it would be critical to have strong bipartisan backing in order to attain some kind of momentum for the House. “I don’t think there is any desire to send a bill over that just barely ekes out,” Corker said.

But whatever the Senate deal turns out to be, it won’t likely be met warmly in the House, where members feel undercut by President Obama and by the upper chamber.

“We believed we could have worked with the president and that the president dropped us like a hot potato, because our deal, he didn’t want to deal with and he wanted to deal with the senators,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, the Rules Committee chairman who met with Obama and other GOP leaders at the White House last week to present a short-term debt ceiling plan.

Over the weekend, talks between the White House and Speaker John Boehner fizzled. In addition, Reid failed to garner 60 affirmatives for a procedural vote to cleanly raise the debt ceiling. He also rejected a bipartisan plan from Republican Susan Collins that would have included temporary extensions of the debt ceiling and the government-funding bill, along with a delay of the medical device sales tax included in the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats then disputed spending levels in the bill, which would extend through January and the start of a fresh round of cuts mandated by sequestration (bringing funding down to $967 billion from $986 billion). That demand by Democrats irked congressional Republicans, who felt the majority leader had moved the parameters of the framework.

During a stop Monday at Martha's Table, a food bank in Washington, D.C., the president pushed for a speedy resolution. The damage from the shutdown will be “greatly magnified if we don’t make sure that the government’s paying its bills, and that has to be decided this week," he said.

Boehner visited McConnell’s office during Monday’s discussions. The pair had been scheduled to join Reid and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the White House in the afternoon, but that trip was postponed at the president’s request to give the lawmakers more time to work out the deal.

Boehner later huddled with his leadership team in his office. “We’re going to be meeting with our members in the morning to discuss the way forward, so stay tuned,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters as he left the meeting, saying that he had not yet seen the details of the Senate framework. Asked whether the House would bring up a bill first, Whip Kevin McCarthy noted, “There’s a lot of different options we still have.”

Members returning to Washington on Monday afternoon told reporters they were waiting to see the details of the Senate plan before weighing in. Rep. John Fleming, one of the more conservative members of the House, said he liked the income verification component for Obamacare subsidies, which has been talked about as a possible attachment.

“We’ve got to come out with something that shows progress here,” he said of the debt ceiling negotiations. “We can’t kick the can down the road and get nothing from it.”

Iowa Rep. Steve King told reporters as he entered the House chamber he is concerned about Democrats moving the ball during the talks. “I just look at this and think, ‘What do Republicans get out of this?’” he said. He anticipated that “there’s going to be some conservatives who will coalesce around a position, but I don’t know what it’s going to be yet. I just got to town.”

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are watching the clock, worried about the debt-ceiling deadline on Oct. 17.

“We’ve basically blown the last two months with some of our members and a lot of the House focused on a shiny object that was never going to happen,” Corker said of the effort to defund the health care law. “Now we find ourselves trying to at least craft a period of time where, hopefully, we will be on the right page and focused on spending reforms to help save our nation and create better solvency. … That’s the reality of what’s happened here, in the United States Congress.”

Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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