Verbal Volleys Over the Shutdown Yield No Agreement

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

There was plenty of back-and-forth, but no breakthrough -- and certainly no surrender -- as congressional leaders and President Obama argued before the cameras over restarting government and protecting the nation’s ability to borrow.

Obama said that if Congress were to pass a temporary bill to open government, he’d be willing to negotiate on a range of concessions demanded by Republicans, including those touching on health care. “The bottom line is either you’re having good-faith negotiations in which there’s give and take, or you’re not,” Obama said at a Tuesday news conference.

But Obama asserted that congressional Republicans instead have “decided to run out the clock until there’s a government shutdown or the possibility of default, thinking that it would give them more leverage.... And that is not how our government is supposed to run.”

Soon after, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, gave reporters his interpretation of what Obama meant: “What the president said today was, if there’s unconditional surrender by Republicans, he’ll sit down and talk to us.”

“That’s not the way government works,” Boehner added.

But exactly how government will work to resolve the fiscal impasse remained the major unanswered question Tuesday.

Senate Democrats have not moved from their public position, hoping that Republicans will get so much pressure from beyond Washington they’ll be compelled to accept the Democrats’ debt-ceiling legislation, leaving the continuing resolution to restart government as an open question.

“I think in the next week you are going to hear the business community, Wall Street and the business community, really come down hard on this place,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “They won’t have an effect on the tea-party people, but they’ll have an effect on mainstream Republicans.”

House Republicans, meanwhile, decided Tuesday to push an idea that would outright scrap the normal legislative processes in favor of creating a special bipartisan, bicameral committee to sort out these fiscal issues. A bill to create such a committee passed in a 224-197 vote Tuesday night.

The proposed “Deficit Reduction and Economic Growth Working Group” would have 10 House members and 10 senators, and would work to make recommendations on how to reform spending programs, change the nation’s statutory public-debt limit, and recommend overall levels of discretionary spending for fiscal 2014. But congressional Democrats and Obama quickly panned the idea. Some dubbed it as a scary replica of the super committee formed in 2011 that failed to find $1.2 trillion in savings, leading to imposition of deep sequester cuts that both parties deplore.

“Not again. Oh, my gosh,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. Becerra reminded reporters that he had been a member of that first super committee, and recalled “there was nothing super about it.”

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used a rare live quorum call to summon members to the chamber to hear a speech outlining his position: House Republicans should accept the Senate continuing resolution as well as the Senate’s clean debt-ceiling measure, which is expected to hit the floor later this week.

Reid also pounded the point that he compromised with Boehner on the top-line budget figure in the Senate CR. (Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rejects it because the Budget Control Act caps require lower spending levels.)

“It’s the biggest compromise I ever made in my career as a member of Congress, some 31 years,” Reid said. “It may not sound like much to some people, but it was really big.”

Reid also introduced a measure to extend the debt ceiling, a move that aides say set up a likely vote on the legislation later this week, and he insists his caucus is united behind his strategy.

Senate Republicans have said they expect to see some kind of concession over the debt limit, perhaps entitlement reform or long-term budget cuts. The point, they say, is that there must be something.

“I’ve been in public office my entire adult life and when you learn this stuff, one of the first things they teach you in Poli-Sci 101, always, always leave the opposition a door to get out,” said Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho.

Asked whether the Senate may be moving a clean debt-ceiling measure this week as a way to inoculate Democrats from public blame if the country does go beyond Treasury’s deadline, Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., said it’s a way to compel lawmakers to get on board.

“It would put greater pressure on those senators who recognize that default is an unacceptable option and gives them a vehicle to say ‘I’m still opposed to the Affordable Care Act, I’m still opposed to funding its implementation, but I’m gonna vote for a clean debt ceiling because that’s the responsible thing to do,’ ” Coons said. “We may—we may—see a number of senators break with the Republican caucus on this.”

But Senate Republicans, even moderates and those willing to work across the aisle, are skeptical that the clean debt-ceiling extension will have any real effect in defusing tensions.

“Suppose we passed it,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “It would go over to the House and go nowhere. It’s all Kabuki theater. What’s the point? The point is to try to gain some publicity leverage. That’s not really deadly serious because Harry Reid knows what’s gonna happen when it goes over to the House, just like the House people know what’s gonna happen when a bill comes over here.”

But, as McCain sees it, Congress and the White House have to and will find a way out of the current crisis. Why?

“None of us like to see the condemnation of the American people,” he said.

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