With talks between GOP House leadership and the White House over reopening government and extending the debt limit broken down, Senate Democratic and Republican leaders are now for the first time discussing a path beyond the impasse.
With the blessing of their members, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell began talking in the last 24 hours to try to work out a deal that could also pass the House.
Senate Democrats rejected a plan modeled on Sen. Susan Collins’ suggestion, which recently gained momentum in the Senate and included a six-month continuing resolution to fund government and a three-month debt limit extension. Her plan would also have delayed for two years the medical device tax used in part to fund Obamacare.
Rather, the contours of the debate seem to be taking shape around the length of the continuing resolution and debt limit extension, and on what Obamacare concession Republicans might extract.
Democrats chafe at a short-term debt limit extension because it would mean another fiscal fight in the heart of the holiday buying season. They also argue for a shorter CR so they can renegotiate the topline spending figures and undo sequestration, which they view as harmful.
Republicans, on the other hand, want a shorter extension so they can pivot from this crisis, which has proved politically costly to them, to discuss spending cuts, entitlement reform and tax reform. They also want a longer continuing resolution, which would lock in the sequestration cuts gained in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
Despite the disagreements, there’s cautious optimism, now that Reid and McConnell are talking.
“There’s such a universe of possibilities out there but we haven’t quite agreed on a specific set,” Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.
Also on Saturday, Senate Republicans blocked Reid’s debt-limit extension measure in a procedural vote, 53-45, along party lines. Reid voted against his bill for parliamentary reasons. The extension would have taken the government through the November 2014.
There was little incentive for Republican senators to vote with the majority to advance the Democratic proposal now that the leaders are discussing a path forward.
But the vote gave senators an opportunity to further their talks as members fraternized on the Senate floor. For example, McConnell and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the No. 3 Senate Democrat, sat huddled together talking throughout much of the vote.
The talks between Reid, McConnell, Schumer and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., opened Saturday morning, with Reid describing the conversations as “extremely cordial,” and preliminary.
Senators also recognized that whatever the deal is it will need to clear the House, which has been unable to offer legislation acceptable to the Senate and the White House. But some Senate Democrats also said they are fed up with House Speaker John Boehner.
“At this point, they have dealt themselves out of this process,” Durbin said. “They cannot agree among themselves and that makes it extremely difficult to take them seriously.”
Senate Republicans sounded optimistic Saturday that such a deal was within reach and also realized the House would have little time to act given the Oct. 17 debt limit deadline.
“Hopefully we’re not wasting our time sending legislation that the House wouldn’t accept,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
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"Even if House Republicans manage to get enough members of their party on board with the latest version of their health care bill, they will face another battle in the Senate: whether the bill complies with the chamber’s arcane ... Byrd rule, which stipulates all provisions in a reconciliation bill must affect federal spending and revenues in a way that is not merely incidental." Democrats should have the advantage in that fight, "unless the Senate pulls another 'nuclear option.'”
The House has passed a one-week spending bill that will avert a government shutdown which was set to begin at midnight. Lawmakers now have an extra week to come to a longer agreement which is expected to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in September. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass before President Trump signs it.
President Trump’s portrayal of an effort to funnel more Medicaid dollars to Puerto Rico as a "bailout" is complicating negotiations over a continuing resolution on the budget. "House Democrats are now requiring such assistance as a condition for supporting the continuing resolution," a position that the GOP leadership is amenable to. "But Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism aligns him with conservative House Republicans inclined to view its request as a bailout, leaving the deal a narrow path to passage in Congress."
Democrats in the House are threatening to shut down the government if Republicans expedite a vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, said Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer Thursday. Lawmakers have introduced a one-week spending bill to give themselves an extra week to reach a long-term funding deal, which seemed poised to pass easily. However, the White House is pressuring House Republicans to take a vote on their Obamacare replacement Friday to give Trump a legislative victory, though it is still not clear that they have the necessary votes to pass the health care bill. This could go down to the wire.