Clock is ticking: Senate works to end shutdown, raise debt limit

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Senate leaders explored the outlines of a deal Monday that would end the two-week-old government shutdown and give the Treasury Department enough borrowing room to stave off a potential default this month, but all sides cautioned that the specifics are all still up for negotiation.

“Everyone just needs to be patient,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, told his colleagues on the chamber floor late Monday. “Perhaps tomorrow will be a bright day. We’re not there yet.”


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He and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have settled on the basic pieces: the government would be funded for several months, and President Obama would be given room to raise the debt into next year, with the House and Senate appointing negotiators to try to reach a broader budget deal in the meantime.

But the exact dates of the debt and spending extensions, and the add-ons — such as delays or restrictions on Obamacare — are still all under negotiation, aides said.

And even if Mr. Reid and Mr. McConnell are able to strike a deal, it’s unclear whether it could get through the GOP-controlled House, where conservatives said the outlines sounded to them like a surrender.

“When you’re giving 98, 99 percent of Obamacare, I don’t see how that would ever pass over here, if indeed it passes the Senate,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Kansas Republican.

Still, the mere prospects of a deal that would give the government more room to expand its $16.7 trillion debt sent the stock markets higher Monday.

Mr. Obama had asked the top party leaders to come to the White House for talks Monday afternoon but canceled that meeting, saying it made more sense to give Mr. Reid and Mr. McConnell space to work.


SEE ALSO: Next move on U.S. credit rating? ‘D’ for default


For his part, the president visited a local food bank, Martha’s Table, where some furloughed federal workers were helping out. Mr. Obama said “some progress” had been made.

“But we’ll see if the progress is real,” the president told reporters.

Mr. Obama said some Senate Republicans recognize “it’s not tenable, it’s not smart, it’s not good for the American people to let America default.”

But the president added, “If Republicans aren’t willing to set aside their partisan concerns in order to do what’s right for the country, we stand a good chance of defaulting, and defaulting could have a potentially have a devastating effect on our economy.”

The Treasury Department has said it will run out of borrowing room Thursday, leaving it with only cash on hand to pay bills. That could last a couple of weeks, or it could be exhausted almost immediately, analysts said.

The moving pieces in the Senate leaders’ deal include:

How long a stopgap funding bill should run. Senate Republicans wanted a longer version that would push well into 2014, which would have also locked in the beginning of the sequester spending cuts. Democrats have balked, saying they still hope to undo those cuts before they kick in on Jan. 15.

How much borrowing authority to give the Treasury Department. Here, the order is reversed and Republicans want a shorter extension, while Democrats want the longest time frame they can get. Mr. Reid has proposed going to the end of 2014, which would last beyond the next congressional elections.

What dents will be made to Obamacare. Possible items include stricter eligibility verification for those who would get subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, and then a repeal of some taxes or fees.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, had proposed delaying a tax on medical devices — a move that has bipartisan support. But Democratic leaders and the White House have resisted changes to Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act, leaving Republicans to search for another concession on that subject, which is what started the conservative revolt against the spending resolution and debt ceiling in the first place.

“I’m baffled by the White House’s opposition to a two-year delay in the tax,” Ms. Collins told CNN on Monday, saying that a bipartisan group of senators had found agreement on that item, and pointing to a nonbinding vote earlier this year to repeal the tax, which garnered the support of 79 senators.

The White House has been insistent that the government reopen and the debt be raised without any conditions, repeatedly comparing Republican demands on Obamacare to hostage-taking and terrorism.

House Republicans remain a major hurdle, and conservatives said what they were hearing about the Senate deal was grim.

“I think we’ll have a hard time with our conference, with a number of members, because of the lack of Obamacare features in that,” said Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr., Louisiana Republican.

That opposition has party leaders in both houses talking strategy, such as which chamber should go first and how many House Democrats would be needed to pass the deal there.

Jacqueline Klimas and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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