WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Thursday offered President Barack Obama a short-term increase in the nation's debt limit as a way to open broader budget talks, and both sides began working on a way to reopen the government.
A late-afternoon meeting at the White House between the president and a group of House Republicans apparently led to the first major crack in the hardened positions each side has taken during the ten-day shutdown.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, who was one of about 20 House Republicans who met with the president, said in an interview, “We are talking.”
“He's not saying yes. We're not saying yes. But we're not saying no either.”
Lankford declined to disclose details of the talks, but he said talks would continue into the night and that the goal was to reopen the government, temporarily lift the debt ceiling and begin broad negotiations on the budget.
“We started a real conversation that could lead to real negotiations to get this resolved,” he said.
Lankford said Vice President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew also were present at the 90-minute meeting in the Roosevelt Room.
The White House released a statement after the meeting saying, “After a discussion about potential paths forward, no specific determination was made. The President looks forward to making continued progress with members on both sides of the aisle.”
Obama has insisted that he was willing to negotiate on a wide range of issues but not with the government shutdown and a debt ceiling crisis hanging over the nation.
House Republicans have demanded changes in the Affordable Care Act before funding the federal government. However, they came out of a morning meeting with an offer to raise the debt limit for six weeks in return for an agreement from the White House to bargain on the budget.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, said Thursday there was “a potential for progress” after days of harsh accusations and name-calling in the nation's capital.
“This gets us to a place where I think other things can start to happen,” Cole said.
The House Republican offer came a week before the administration's deadline to raise the debt ceiling. Lew has been warning that the government would not have enough money on Oct. 17 to pay all of its bills.
Lew testified Thursday before the Senate Finance Committee and sought to debunk the idea that the government could pay some bills and delay others.
Lew said the government makes 80 million payments a month and that he wouldn't know how to decide among Social Security recipients, military retirees and a host of others who need to be paid.
“The legal issues are many,” he said. “I do not know how you would make the decisions. This system was not designed to be turned off selectively. Anyone who thinks it can be done just doesn't know the architecture of our payment system.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has scheduled a vote for Saturday on a bill to raise the debt limit by $1 trillion, with no strings attached. However, he might not be able to get enough Republicans to help move that proposal.
Senate Democrats also met with the president on Thursday; Senate Republicans, some of whom have been crafting their own proposal to reopen the government, are scheduled to go to the White House on Friday.
Cole said the short-term debt limit increase proposed by House Republicans would pave the way for negotiations on government spending, including entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.
He and Lankford said the Affordable Care Act would certainly be part of the talks.