WASHINGTON – Talks in the Senate aimed at resolving the crisis over the federal budget hit a setback Sunday as Democrats, emboldened by GOP disarray, pushed their advantage, leading Republicans to warn against efforts to “humiliate” their party.
Although Senate leaders continued to talk, they appeared to make little progress over the weekend, dashing hopes that a deal could be announced before markets opened Monday. Some senators urged House Republican leaders to try again to push a measure through their chamber.
As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) opened a rare Sunday session, he said was confident a solution could be reached.
“We’re in conversation,” Reid said.
“It’s the height of hypocrisy to not pay our bills, the height of irresponsibility,” he added. “Americans want Congress to compromise.”
Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky spoke Sunday, and Reid said later the discussions were “productive” and “substantive.”
The protracted stalemate has left Congress facing twin crises: Thursday’s deadline to raise the nation’s borrowing limit or risk a potentially catastrophic debt default, and a federal government shutdown that will enter its third week Tuesday.
Republicans had hoped they could use the standoff to gain leverage in their fight with Democrats over the budget and President Obama’s healthcare law, but find themselves in a dramatically weakened position. They have failed to unify around a common negotiating position and face polls showing that the public by large margins blames them for the stalemate.
As a result, a confrontation that started with the GOP on the offensive, driving to block or delay the healthcare law, has become a defensive effort by Republicans to hold onto budget cuts they achieved over the last several years.
On one level, the remaining issues up for debate are relatively small. Republicans have conceded that they will need to vote to end the government shutdown and extend the government’s ability to borrow money. At least in the Senate, they have given up their efforts to “defund or delay” Obamacare.
What remains are more detailed issues, mostly involving how many weeks to fund agencies and how long to suspend the $16.7-trillion ceiling on the federal debt. But those details have important implications for future negotiations and, as a result, have been subject to intense haggling.
Senate Republicans want to extend the debt ceiling for just a few weeks, but would fund government agencies for a longer period to lock in current low spending levels.
Democrats want to extend the debt ceiling until after next fall’s congressional elections, but they prefer a shorter extension of funds for government agencies. That would allow spending levels to be renegotiated before a new round of so-called sequester cuts takes effect in the new year.
The first round of those cuts -- across-the-board reductions in spending -- took effect earlier this year as part of a budget agreement reached in 2011. The cuts were originally designed to be a policy option so unpalatable that both parties would reach a broader agreement to avoid having them take effect. Averting them, however, proved an insufficient incentive to make difficult budget compromises.
Democrats -- and, until recently, some Republicans -- want to avoid locking the next round of cuts into place. Some Republicans particularly object to the impact of cuts at the Pentagon, which will bear the brunt of the next round.
Over the weekend, a bipartisan proposal led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was rejected by Democratic leaders in part because it would have maintained those cuts through March.
On Sunday, Republicans complained that Democrats had gone too far by trying to undo the 2011 sequester agreement. The six Democratic senators who had been in talks with Collins jointly issued a statement distancing themselves from the proposal.
“I think the Democrats are on the verge of being one tick too cute as they see the House possibly in disarray -- they now are overreaching,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We’ve got to ... get this back in the middle of the road, act like adults, deal with these issues.”
Democrats denied they were seeking to undo past agreements. The goal was just to avoid locking into place next year’s across-the-board cuts and leave them open to negotiations that both sides have expected, they said.
Meantime, key Republicans reiterated that despite continuing efforts from the hard-right flank, the effort to “defund or delay” Obamacare was over. Even as tea party favorites, including Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), attended a rally to denounce the administration for closing national monuments as part of the overall government shutdown, Republican senators publicly distanced the party from their strategies.
“The question is, is should we follow that leadership, or should we go in other directions and coalesce the majority of the American people?” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, said in a television interview.
“Democrats had better help us,” he added in the interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” saying Democrats should resist the temptation to “humiliate” the GOP. “Now’s the time to be magnanimous and sit down and get this thing done.”
Congressional Democrats, backed by the administration, have retained an unusual degree of unity. The White House underscored that united front by releasing word that Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) had “discussed the way forward” during a telephone call Sunday afternoon.
Democrats say they are willing to engage in broader budget negotiations, but only after the government is reopened and the threat of default is off the table.
By contrast, Republican senators warned of the danger that pushing too hard could completely undermine House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), potentially leading to a House GOP leadership even more under tea party influence.
“Here’s what I’m worried about: a deal coming out of the Senate that a majority of Republicans can’t vote for in the House. That really does compromise Speaker Boehner’s leadership,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” “And after all this mess is over, do we really want to compromise John Boehner as leader of the House?”
As talks evolve, however, the question remains whether the speaker can push the House to accept a compromise that would require peeling away from members of the party’s hard-right flank, who would likely oppose any Senate-passed deal.