WASHINGTON — Senate leaders from both parties began negotiating Saturday on a way to reopen the government and raise the nation's debt limit after talks between House Republicans and President Barack Obama broke down.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., began meeting Saturday, a development that Reid called very positive. McConnell, who has been part of negotiations to end other major standoffs during the Obama administration, has kept a low profile for the past few weeks.
The House left town until Monday, as Republican leaders abandoned hopes of reaching a compromise with the president, while senators are planning to return to session Sunday. This is the third consecutive weekend Congress has worked, and the first in which lawmakers made any optimistic statements about resolving the bitter disputes.
“I hope that our talking is some solace to the American people and the world,” Reid said. “This hasn't happened until now. This should be seen as something very positive.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who also is involved in the talks, said, “I believe Senator McConnell showed good will. I believe he wants to come to a solution.”
Saturday marked the 12th day of the partial government shutdown that has led to hundreds of thousands of federal workers being furloughed, the closure of national parks, the interruption of numerous services and a loss of work for countless contractors.
Though many programs for the poor, veterans and elderly have continued to make payments during the shutdown, the administration has warned that all government spending will be threatened if the debt ceiling is not raised. By Thursday, the government won't have enough money to pay its bills, officials say.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, said the next 48 to 72 hours will be critical.
“I'm cautiously optimistic we'll get to a framework that will allow us not to default and to get the government up and operational,” he said.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, who was among the House Republicans who met with Obama on Thursday at the White House, said the president had essentially led them on and then dropped them.
After seeming to make some movement, he said, the president refused to negotiate until the government was reopened and the debt ceiling was raised.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, crafted a plan that would have extended the debt limit and reopened the government in exchange for some relatively minor changes to the Affordable Care Act and more flexibility for federal agencies to administer budget cuts.
Reid said the only thing Democrats liked about her plan was that it reopened the government and extended the debt ceiling.
Debt ceiling vote fails
In their talks with Obama, House Republicans offered to extend the nation's borrowing authority for six weeks to jump-start broad budget negotiations.
But Obama said in his weekly Saturday address that “it wouldn't be wise, as some suggest, to just kick the debt ceiling can down the road for a couple months, and flirt with a first-ever intentional default right in the middle of the holiday shopping season.
“Because damage to America's sterling credit rating wouldn't just cause global markets to go haywire; it would become more expensive for everyone in America to borrow money.”
Republicans on Saturday blocked legislation that would have raised the debt ceiling for a year.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, who is recuperating from heart surgery and missed the vote, said he would have opposed the bill.
“Raising the debt ceiling without any common-sense solutions to rein in the federal government would be irresponsible and reckless, which is why I would have voted no,” Inhofe said.
With House Republicans now at least temporarily on the sidelines, Cole said he expects the Senate “to cobble something together and send it to the House.”
If that something is “reasonable,” Lankford said, the House should vote on it.
House Republican leaders have refused even to allow a vote on a bill that would reopen the government with no strings attached.
Democrats made several attempts again on Saturday to force a vote but were repeatedly rebuffed. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said a majority of Democrats and Republicans have said they would vote to reopen the government.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, “has prevented democracy from working its will,” Van Hollen said.