Grim-Faced Optimism as Fiscal Talks Continue
A breakthrough deal remained elusive, but Republican and Democratic senators held bipartisan talks over reopening government and extending the debt limit, as House Republicans and the White House carried discussions late into the night on Thursday.
The framework of a potential agreement remains murky. But House Republicans said they would continue to talk with President Obama overnight, even after he rejected the latest House proposal.
"We made an offer, we're negotiating the rest, we decided to keep talking," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Included in those discussions, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., were efforts "to find the conditions of a [spending bill] to end the government shutdown." What kind of timetable, if any, was unclear. But Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., the vice chair of the House GOP conference, said Thursday night on CNBC that House Republicans hoped to have government opened by Monday.
While the White House said in a statement there was no breakthrough, it characterized the talks as helpful. "The President looks forward to making continued progress with members on both sides of the aisle," the statement read.
Even so, optimism from both sides seemed undermined by the grim faces of many of the GOP lawmakers upon their return to the Capitol. And despite their optimism earlier in the day, House Republicans scrapped the scheduled unveiling of a measure they had billed Thursday morning as a compromise, which would extend the nation's debt ceiling for six weeks to avert potential default.
That bill had been described by Republicans as a "clean" debt-limit increase that does not ask for any specific policy concessions in return—a strategy not all House conservatives said they agreed with. More informally, in return for passing the bill, Republicans were seeking a verbal agreement from Obama to appoint budget conferees for a working group that will negotiate long-term fiscal issues during that six-week period. Some Republicans said the plan would also have somehow led to a ban—potentially a permanent one—on the Treasury Department using so-called extraordinary measures to avoid default.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is preparing a clean debt-limit extension for a procedural vote as early as Saturday—"unless an agreement is reached," said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson—and senators say they've been meeting behind closed doors to hammer out a possible deal.
"The plan is to try and reach an agreement so that we can resolve both of these issues," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said. "There's all kinds of plans back and forth."
Democratic aides acknowledge that discussions are taking place, but would not comment on details of the conversations. Asked whether he would negotiate before the government would open, Reid said, "Not going to happen."
Among the plans being discussed is a proposal from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who's calling for a repeal of the medical-device tax and for allowing agencies leeway in administering sequestration cuts. A Senate Republican aide said this plan, which would reopen government, could also roll into a larger deal to extend the debt ceiling.
Asked what was under consideration, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, pointed to a deal that would include both reopening government and the debt limit. He rejected any deal that would raise taxes and avoided details, but said the conference is "looking for some other way" to bridge the impasse.
"There's a lot of really good ideas, and we're running out of road to kick the can down," he said. "I think at some point here soon, there's gonna have to be some coalescing around some ideas and there are a lot of good ideas, and that's one," Cornyn said, referring to Collins's plan.
Senate Republicans held back criticism of the House, but said they were ready to try to resolve the issue.
"All of us on this side of the building don't want to make any kind of editorial comments about what the House is or isn't doing because we know it's difficult there right now to reach consensus," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "I think the House needs to do what it can. On the other hand, I think there's a rising consensus that Senate Republicans need to take some steps to move our country in a positive way."
Corker also said that he expects a resolution "very soon," but would not elaborate.
Unable to reach any breakthrough deal to extend the nation's debt ceiling and reopen government, House Republicans still sought to underscore that the talks with Obama and other officials were a positive step forward and that they are ongoing.
Some say the House Republican proposal represents a strategy floated by Ryan to allow the temporary extension of the borrowing limit, and thus allow more time for broader deficit-reduction talks in areas such as entitlement programs, taxes, and spending. But many House conservatives say they remain unwilling to restart funding and reopen government without concessions.
There were also signs from Democrats on Capitol Hill that what Republicans were offering was not necessarily enough. Among the complaints was an absence of any House Republican plans to also restart funding and reopen government, which is now in its second week of a shutdown.
A couple of hours before the meeting between Obama and Republicans, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., outright refused to say whether she and her House Democratic Caucus would support or oppose the Republican offer. But she and Rep Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, both made it clear they were not thrilled.
Both said they'd prefer to see an extension for more than six weeks. And they—like some of their Senate counterparts—further questioned the status of House Republican plans to reopen the government.
"Why would you generate an increasing and continuing uncertainty in the economy by saying the United States of America is only going to pay its bills on time for six weeks?" Van Hollen asked. "Why wouldn't you want to make sure you send a signal of certainty and say the United States will pay its bill on time for at least a year?"
Of the lack of a plan to reopen government, Pelosi asked, "What is their thinking? Why would they keep government closed during that time?"
Van Hollen added: "There's absolutely no excuse for one more day of a government shutdown."