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Senate Talks Resume as House GOP Plan Falters

Senate Talks Resume as House GOP Plan Falters

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - October 16, 2013

A day that began with a House Republican leading the conference in "Amazing Grace" ended Tuesday night with grace in short supply, as the GOP leadership failed to garner enough votes for a plan to re-open the government and raise the debt ceiling.

Republican House members typically begin party meetings in the Capitol basement with a prayer, lawmakers say. But Tuesday’s sung hymn, led by Florida Rep. Steve Southerland (a former funeral home director), was noteworthy for its plainly stated theme of redemption.

Now, the Senate will have to pick up the pieces, with some lawmakers unsure whether Congress can procedurally deliver a solution before hitting Thursday's default deadline -- with credit agencies standing ready with their grading books.

“We will be prepared tomorrow to make some decisions,” Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions told reporters as he left Speaker John Boehner’s office after the leadership canceled the rest of the evening’s schedule. The speaker decided to “allow us to take the night and make sure all of our members know what’s going on.” The conference did not have plans to meet in the morning, a GOP aide said.

With no movement in the House and a day wasted, the focus quickly moved back to the upper chamber. There, party leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell announced almost simultaneously that they would resume talks that had been placed on pause Tuesday morning as senators waited to see whether Boehner could pass a deal that included attachments designed to appease conservatives.

"Given tonight's events, the leaders have decided to work toward a solution that would reopen the government and prevent default,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart, who did not mention the Oct. 17 deadline the Treasury Department has said Congress must act by to avoid default. “They are optimistic an agreement can be reached."

Reid’s office echoed that optimism Tuesday night as the leaders hoped to portray a sense of calm ahead of markets opening on Wednesday morning. The Senate framework would fund the government through Jan. 15, extend the debt ceiling until Feb. 7 and begin negotiations on the budget by mid-December.

Boehner's next moves, should the Senate pass its own deal, could be the $17 trillion question. What happened Tuesday night was eerily reminiscent of the speaker’s “Plan B” measure during the fiscal cliff talks that failed to attract a majority of Republican votes. Boehner ultimately brought a Senate-passed bill (forged by McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden) to the floor with Democratic votes.

With Boehner’s plan effectively dead, it is unclear whether he will amend it again for passage by the majority of Republicans -- a measure that would surely be rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate -- or take up the Reid-McConnell measure. With the clock ticking, the Senate bill could get wider support from upper chamber Republicans who hope a broad bipartisan vote would pressure the House into action.

“Things look better than they did several hours ago,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said outside the Senate chamber Tuesday night.

There had been signs that the House plan wouldn’t collect enough support. Indeed, Boehner admitted earlier in the day, "There have been no decisions about exactly what we will do." Given that possibility, 14 senators from both parties gathered in Republican Susan Collins' office to plot a path forward as the House worked to whip votes. The senators emerged from the meeting and said they would continue to work together.

(The group included Republicans Jeff Flake, John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk, Mike Johanns, Lisa Murkowski and Democrats Joe Manchin, Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Pryor, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Amy Klobuchar and independent Sen. Angus King.)

Earlier on Tuesday, GOP House members streamed out of a closed-door conference meeting with mixed feelings about their proposal, which included a two-year delay of the medical device tax, language that would strip away Obamacare subsidies for members of Congress and the executive branch, and new rules for the Treasury Department.

It mirrored the Senate plan that had been in the works in terms of extending the debt ceiling to February and funding the government into January. “It got the ball rolling,” Rep. Charlie Dent said after the nearly two-hour morning meeting.

But it didn’t do enough to satisfy conservative demands that it address entitlements, spending, and other parts of the health care law. There were “sincere, deep thoughts of concern” in response to the proposal, Rep. Walter Jones told reporters after the meeting. The North Carolina Republican noted that the last time he voted to raise the debt ceiling was in 1997. “If you don’t draw the line in the sand now, you never will.”

Democrats immediately attacked the House’s efforts, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asserting that they “sabotaged” bipartisan and good-faith negotiations between Reid and McConnell.

Speaking with New York City’s WABC-TV during a round of local television interviews, Obama lamented that Boehner has been unable to control his members:

"For Speaker Boehner . . . negotiating with me isn’t necessarily good for the extreme faction in his caucus -- it weakens him. So there have been repeated situations where we have agreements, then he goes back and it turns out that he can’t control his caucus. So the challenge here is, can you deliver on agreements that are made?”

Boehner’s efforts are under scrutiny by conservative outside groups that are encouraging members to continue the fight against Obamacare through the continuing resolution. On Tuesday afternoon, the Heritage Foundation announced it would score votes on the measure, creating a bigger headache for the speaker and putting conservatives on defense. A Rules Committee gathering scheduled for Tuesday evening was canceled, signaling that the measure was doomed.

Even as GOP members came in and out of Boehner’s office earlier in the day, the vote against the plan had already been effectively cooked, a Republican aide said. Leaders then tossed around various adjustments, including eliminating health care subsidies for staff members in addition to members of Congress (a suggestion in keeping with the conference’s message of “fairness”), taking out the delay of the medical device tax, and shortening the continuing resolution. None won enough members’ approval.

“Put me in the ‘no deal’ is better than a ‘bad deal’ category,” GOP Rep. Thomas Massie tweeted after meeting with Boehner.

Senate Republicans had cheered on their House colleagues earlier in the day in the hopes of getting a faster procedural vehicle and squeezing at least some concessions from Democrats.

"This is ... an all-hands-on-deck approach to try to help the speaker go on offense for the party and the country," Lindsey Graham told reporters soon after Boehner announced his plan to the conference that morning.

"If they fail to follow the speaker’s leadership on this issue, and the Senate has to act -- and we will -- he'll be in a very difficult spot probably having to pass a bill with a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans. And that’s never good on a big issue for any speaker,” Graham added.

Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report. 

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

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