With federal agencies partially shut down and the government projected to reach its $16.7 trillion debt limit later this month, lawmakers and President Obama have begun talking, but so far that discussion has not even begun to bridge the vast canyon between Republicans and Democrats.
Congressional leaders emerged Wednesday night from a White House meeting with the president giving little definite sign that a more cordial chapter had begun in negotiations over ending the government shutdown, including how to deal with GOP demands for concessions on Obamacare.
Some speculation before the 5:30 p.m. get-together was that this initial summit could help warm the chilly relations, or perhaps even kick-start talks not only toward a deal to restart government funding, but also over a grander fiscal bargain involving the debt ceiling.
But the leaders exited shortly before 7 p.m. indicating there had been candid discussion but little real progress, and dug themselves deeper into their positions over who was more at fault for the shutdown. Adding to the angst over the impasse was the growing possibility of a federal default later this month.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called on Democrats to accept the House's offer for a conference to hash out differences. He told reporters it was "a nice conversation, a polite conversation" at the White House but that "the president reiterated one more time tonight that he will not negotiate." Aides were not allowed in the room.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., then appeared, and cast Republicans as obsessed with the Affordable Care Act.
Reid told reporters that Boehner should "won't take yes for an answer," a reference to his wanting the speaker to allow a House vote on the Senate's "clean" version of a stopgap funding bill to end the shutdown — one that is not tied to GOP demands to defund, delay, or in any way dismantle the health care law. Both Democratic leaders said the House has had six months to pass bills amending the health care program.
Two full days into the shutdown, though, and the silence between Boehner and Reid finally ended. The meeting at its most basic level did represent a connection at least, on the heels of angry accusations by House and Senate Republicans that Obama had been slamming the door on negotiating a way out of the shutdown, or on the debt limit. But to what effect is not clear.
Reid had written to Boehner earlier Wednesday seeking to end their disagreement and reopen the government. It was the first public acknowledgment of a correspondence between the leaders since the government shut down at midnight Monday.
But Reid's letter merely put in writing what the Senate leader has been verbally asking Boehner to do for weeks. Reid also countered Boehner's claim that Democrats won't negotiate in conference, saying he would be willing to meet in a bigger budget conference. But that, too, is not a capitulation to Republicans.
Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., has asked more than a dozen times for a conference on the budget.
The shutdown is rolling toward the Oct. 17 date that Treasury projects the nation's $16.7 trillion debt cap will be reached. Boehner and House Republicans say they want spending cuts and expect to make other demands in return for agreeing to extend the nation's ability to borrow. But Obama and Reid have said they will not bargain over the nation's ability to pay its debts.
With the clock ticking, some Senate Republicans worry that leverage they anticipated having in that debate will slip away as the shutdown continues.
"I guess the thought was if you hold out long enough everybody caves in," said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., "but I think I've been around Harry Reid long enough to know he's got his jaw set."
Republicans wanted a clean shot at pressing their bargaining power during the debt limit fight, but they don't expect to have that opportunity anymore.
"If we remain in a shutdown of the government leading up to the 17th when we have the debt ceiling issue before us, that would be a mistake, I think," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. "And the debt ceiling is a better piece of legislation to have a robust debate on."
The thinking is that by insisting on concessions on Obamacare, Republicans have boxed themselves in and cannot claim a victory unless the president and Senate Democrats give in.
"I think picking Obamacare had no promise from day one," Johanns said. "The whole idea that you could somehow defund Obamacare through a continuing resolution just wasn't legally or factually correct."
Plus, now that House Republicans have fused Obamacare and government funding, the party potentially loses on fiscal priorities such as spending caps under the Budget Control Act that many conservatives favor.
That leaves Republicans in a weak position, one that relies on Democrats fumbling. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said he thinks it's to the Democrats' advantage if the debate over the CR bleeds into the debt ceiling.
"I think the Democrats really run the risk of overplaying their hand here," he said.
Meanwhile, over in the House, some Republicans say they aren't sure any deal or compromise Boehner might reach with Obama and Democratic leaders — if he can in fact reach one — would hold water with a majority of his conference members. And that, said the lawmakers, will open up questions then of what Boehner will choose to do.