Congressional Democrats are no longer ruling out a short-term spending bill that includes the sequester cuts in its topline numbers, a potential concession that could help avert a government shutdown at the end of the month.
But the softer strategy comes with a tougher message: Republicans — not Democrats — should be the ones held responsible for shutting down government, if that happens.
"Just because you're an antigovernment idealogue who has landed in Congress doesn't mean that you should be shutting down government," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday.
Pelosi and other Democrats also criticized Republicans who want to use their leverage in talks over government spending, the debt ceiling, and sequestration as another avenue to undo the Affordable Care Act.
Pelosi's comments came after she and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, met Thursday for about 45 minutes behind closed doors to discuss fiscal matters.
The meeting focused on two major issues: keeping government running beyond Sept. 30, when the current funding mechanism expires, and increasing the debt limit. The most urgent is the need for a bill to keep government running at the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, because the House and Senate have not agreed on any of the 12 annual appropriations bills for 2014.
A stop-gap spending measure to extend current spending levels for several weeks is the most likely solution. That would allow more time for negotiations between congressional Republicans and Democrats and the White House over a longer-term spending package that could also address the debt ceiling — which will have to be increased in mid-October for the U.S. to continue paying its bills.
But with just three weeks left, reaching an agreement on such a carry-over bill is by no means certain. Republican and Democratic leaders in the House already have advised their members they might have to be in Washington during the final week of September, which was scheduled to be a recess week, in case an eleventh-hour solution is needed.
Hurdles to a deal were already on display this week. Boehner and other GOP leaders were forced on Wednesday to indefinitely postpone their plan to keep government funded through Dec. 15 because they could not find enough votes.
That plan included a twist first floated by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to link the bill to a separate resolution that would force the Senate to hold a vote to defund Obamacare. That's something many conservatives are demanding in return for their votes.
That proposal also would continue government spending at an annualized rate of $986.3 billion, a level that maintains the sequestration cuts. Senate Democrats have been writing up their spending bills at a topline level of $1.059 trillion, on the assumption the sequester will be repealed.
Still, many conservatives opposed the House plan, complaining the Senate could vote down the defunding language for Obamacare. And on Thursday, some conservatives began floating alternative language that would tie the spending bill to a one-year delay in funding for Obamacare.
After his meeting with the other leaders, Boehner said that there are "a million" options for a continuing resolution still being discussed, and that work was still being done even on the option that stalled this week.
"We're working with our colleagues to work our way through these issues. I think there is a way to get there. I'm going to be continuing to work with my fellow leaders and our members to address those concerns," Boehner said.
But Pelosi made it clear that proposals that include defunding the Affordable Care Act are nonstarters.
"They know what they're proposing is not going to pass the Senate or be signed by the president, so why don't we just save time, be constructive?" she said.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said, "Congress needs to pass a budget and not attach politically motivated riders to their funding bills, you know, part of a persistent effort to refight old battles."
But Pelosi was also asked whether Democrats might accept the GOP measure with its short-term continuation of the sequester cuts, if the Obamacare language was dropped. And she did not dismiss the idea.
"It'd have to be for a very short time," she said. "We'll see what they [Republicans] do."
Over in the Senate, Reid responded similarly, saying, "Let's find out what they can do. It's hard to negotiate something that doesn't exist."
But Senate Democrats, like Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., stood by the chamber's budget, which would undo the automatic, across-the-board cuts in the long term. "We are unified in our caucus that we need to replace sequestration responsibly," she said.
Senate Democrats also offered Republicans little hope that a deal could be struck over delaying the implementation of Obamacare. Asked if his goal was to return a "clean CR," meaning without language defunding or delaying the health care law's implementation, Reid said flatly, "Yes."
Like Pelosi, some Senate Democrats are now aggressively casting their opponents as obstructionists, arguing that they now have the upper hand in this fall's debt fights and are confident that a government shutdown or default would politically benefit them in the 2014 elections. By contrast, Republicans hope to capitalize on polling that shows the Affordable Care Act is still unpopular with the public.
"Push comes to shove on debt ceiling, I'm virtually certain they'll blink," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate. "They know they shouldn't be playing havoc with the markets. They're on a little stronger ground with shutting down the government. But even on that one, they're on weak ground because the public sort of is finally smelling that these guys are for obstructing."
"They want to keep debating Obamacare? Fine," Schumer said. "But there's a time and a place for everything. It's called the election of 2014."