Senate Talks Hit Snag, but Reid Sounds Optimistic

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks at the Capitol.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Oct. 13, 2013, 1:33 p.m.

With Sen­ate lead­ers now driv­ing talks to re­open gov­ern­ment and avoid a debt de­fault, the dis­cus­sion hit a snag Sunday over budget caps writ­ten in­to law in 2011. Des­pite the hitch, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id wrapped up a rare week­end ses­sion on a pos­it­ive note.

With just four days un­til the debt-ceil­ing dead­line, Re­id said he had a pro­duct­ive talk with Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and that he’s “op­tim­ist­ic about the pro­spects for a pos­it­ive con­clu­sion.”

“I wish I could give you all the de­tails,” Re­id told a few re­port­ers as he left the Cap­it­ol. “But that wouldn’t be ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Earli­er, sen­at­ors clashed over spend­ing caps in the con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion. Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gued their Demo­crat­ic col­leagues in­sist on a CR that would bust the Budget Con­trol Act caps, but Demo­crats counter that they’re on re­cord sup­port­ing those caps through mid-Novem­ber.

Also on Sunday, Mc­Con­nell called on Demo­crats to sup­port a pro­pos­al based on an of­fer from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and sup­por­ted by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that in­cludes a six-month ex­ten­sion of the con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion, a three-month debt-lim­it ex­ten­sion, and a delay of the med­ic­al-device tax.

“It’s time for Demo­crat lead­ers to take ‘yes’ for an an­swer,” Mc­Con­nell said in a state­ment.

A group of Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors, in­clud­ing Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Mark Pry­or, D-Ark., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Joe Don­nelly, D-Ind., and Manchin, as well as An­gus King, I-Maine, called the ne­go­ti­ations “pro­duct­ive,” but said there’s no agree­ment.

Des­pite the dis­agree­ment, just the latest in a pub­licly par­tis­an brawl to re­start gov­ern­ment and steer the coun­try away from de­fault, law­makers say their lead­ers have at least fo­cused on the right ques­tions — a sug­ges­tion that Con­gress have moved away from re-lit­ig­at­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act.

“If we can get the ad­her­ing to the Budget Con­trol Act caps back where they should be, which is again settled law, my sense is the ne­go­ti­ations could move ahead pretty quickly,” said Sen. Bob Cork­er, R-Tenn.

At is­sue, ac­cord­ing to Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an aides, is the length of time for a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to fund ap­pro­pri­ations and for an ex­ten­sion of the debt lim­it.

Re­pub­lic­ans want as long a CR as pos­sible, up to a year. The think­ing is that the longer the CR goes, the more se­cure are the spend­ing cuts locked in dur­ing the 2011 Budget Con­trol Act. On the debt lim­it, though, Re­pub­lic­ans want a brief ex­ten­sion to al­low for a fuller de­bate on spend­ing cuts and en­ti­tle­ment re­form.

Demo­crats, on the oth­er hand, want the op­pos­ite. They seek a short­er-term CR so they can, the hope is, get to a budget con­fer­ence and re­set the top-line spend­ing fig­ure. Demo­crats want a longer debt-lim­it ex­ten­sion to avoid the kinds of cuts they view as pain­ful.

Re­id dis­missed the no­tion that Demo­crats want to bust the so-called BCA caps.

“Any talk about break­ing the caps is not any­thing that came from us,” Re­id said.

Still, Re­pub­lic­ans see it dif­fer­ently.

“I think between the White House pos­sibly pulling back Sen­ate Demo­crat lead­er­ship two nights ago and then just con­ver­sa­tions in their caucus — I think there’s been a little bit of a step back from the settled law of the Budget Con­trol Act,” Cork­er said.

The GOP po­s­i­tion promp­ted a swift reply from Demo­crats who point to the CR as evid­ence that they voted to keep the caps.

“The sug­ges­tion that Demo­crats in­sist on break­ing the budget caps is false and be­lied by the facts,” said a Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate lead­er­ship aide. “Demo­crats all voted for the Sen­ate-passed short-term CR at cur­rent se­quester levels.”

Sen­ate Demo­crats sup­por­ted a CR at an an­nu­al­ized rate of $986 bil­lion, which tracked with the House’s fig­ure as well, but they’re eager to go to a budget con­fer­ence to fight for their high­er top-line fig­ure of $1.058 tril­lion.

Des­pite the “step back,” Cork­er said he’s hope­ful Re­id and Mc­Con­nell would be able to work out an agree­ment “by the time we all go home to­night.”

Mc­Con­nell, ac­cord­ing to an aide, was not at the Cap­it­ol, but could come in at a mo­ment’s no­tice if needed and was avail­able by phone.

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