WASHINGTON -- Time is running out for lawmakers to make a deal on legislation that would reopen the federal government and avoid a default on the U.S. debt. But the signs of progress that marked the start of the weekend were more uncertain Sunday as senators remained at an impasse over what both parties could accept.
Attention has shifted to the Senate after it became clear last week there was little chance that House Republicans and President Obama would be able to come to an agreement. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took up the negotiating mantle over the weekend, but their conversations - including the most recent one Sunday afternoon - failed to move the chamber any closer to a solution.
Still, Reid projected optimism as the Senate adjourned after a rare Sunday session, saying he had a “productive” and “substantive” discussion during the afternoon and that talks would continue.
“I’m optimistic about the prospects for a positive conclusion to the issues before this country today.”
But the Senate will have to move fast in order to avoid default by the Oct. 17 date on which the U.S. is expected to exhaust its borrowing authority. The deadline is just three days away, and in order to move along Senate business faster than its normal pace, all lawmakers would have to agree to waive certain procedural hurdles.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are growing ever more frustrated that their Democratic counterparts rejected a plan offered by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. The plan would have raised the debt ceiling through the end of January, reopened the government for six months, delayed for two years the medical device tax in the health care law, and provided federal agencies greater flexibility in managing the budget cuts mandated by the sequester.
Senate Democrats rejected Collins’ plan Saturday, saying there were no actual concessions to Democratic priorities, since they view government funding and a debt-ceiling increase as the job of Congress. The move has left Republicans accusing the president of forgoing leadership for the sake of scoring political points.
“Twice they were close to a deal and the Democrats moved the goalpost in light of the polling data,” he said. “I’m very disappointed that the president of the United States has not played a more active role in this, as Bill Clinton did back in ‘95,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on CBS News “Face the Nation.”
His views were echoed by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., telling CBS News’ Bob Schieffer, “We were close and then the Senate Democratic leadership, and I believe the White House, pulled back. And where I’m concerned, Bob, is where we are now is that the defunding strategy was a zero sum strategy. And now we have a zero sum response,” she said.
Though Democrats had rejected the Collins plan, McConnell doubled down on it Sunday by voicing his support in a statement, saying, “There is a bipartisan plan in place that has the support of Democrat and Republican Senators...it’s time for Democrat leaders to take ‘yes’ for an answer.”
The Democratic senators he was referring to - Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Angus King of Maine, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, responded that they had been involved in “productive, bipartisan discussions” with Collins and other Republicans but “we do not support the proposal in its current form. There are negotiations, but there is no agreement.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s number-three Democrat, said on Sunday that the looming sequester cuts set to hit in January - which both parties want to avoid - could spark negotiations. Still, that would require the two sides to agree on ways replace the cuts: Republicans want to look at savings from entitlement spending to avert defense cuts, but Democrats prefer a mix entitlement cuts and new revenues. He suggested that a bill that opened up the government until Jan. 15, when the sequester cuts take place, could lead to discussions.
“I am more optimistic than most we could come to an agreement. That was one place where the House Republicans and the president were not at total loggerheads,” Schumer said.
Mr. Obama also spoke with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., by phone Sunday, where they reiterated the Democratic position that Congress must reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling without any policy conditions before they will negotiate a longer-term budget solution.
Public anger at the shutdown manifested itself Sunday in the form of protests over the closure of the national monuments. A crowd—joined by Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and Mike Lee, R-Utah, as well as former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin - converged on the World War II memorial and in front of the White House, tearing down metal barricades blocking off closed sites.
“Our vets have proven that they have not been timid, so we will not be timid in calling out any who would use our military, our vets, as pawns in a political game,” Palin told the crowd. Cruz asked, “Why is the federal government spending money to erect barricades to keep veterans out of this memorial?”
Though many of the protestors carried signs blaming Mr. Obama for the shutdown, most recent polls show Republicans bearing more of the blame.
An Associated Press-GfK survey released last week showed that 62 percent of adults surveyed online mainly blame Republicans for the current shutdown. About half said Mr. Obama or congressional Democrats bear the responsibility.
And a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed 70 percent of Americans blamed congressional Republicans for putting their political agenda ahead of what’s good for the country.