Senators Seek to End U.S. Government Shutdown and Avoid Default
Photo Credit: AFP
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Two senior senators have taken on the fraught process of finding a congressional deal to reopen the US government and raise the country's borrowing limit, just four days before the Treasury is scheduled to run out of money.
The Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, long-time adversaries, met on Saturday morning after it became clear that a separate attempt to broker a deal, between the Republican-dominated House of Representatives and the White House, had failed.
Focus shifted to the Senate when President Barack Obama rejected a plan from House Republicans to extend the so-called debt ceiling by just six weeks and made no offer lift the US government shutdown. Reid told reporters his meeting with McConnell had been "cordial" and added that they were only at preliminary stages.
"We don't have anything done yet – there's a long way to go before something like that will happen," he said, adding that he hoped to achieve a deal "in the next 48 hours".
Reid, McConnell and two other senators – the Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander and New York Democrat Charles Schumer – met in Reid's office at 9am on Saturday, for just under an hour. Later in the day, Reid and Schumer met Obama in the Oval Office at the White House.
The four senators were described by a senior congressional aide as a "nucleus" that could now rescue the country from default. However at a press conference, Reid and Schumer expressed only cautious optimism, and after a strategy meeting with fellow Democrats, the California senator Dianne Feinstein said she could not see any way through the current impasse. "There are people that have different proposals – there are probably four or five of those," she said. "But the proposals that will get the leadership of the House, the Senate, and the president, are not out there at this time."
On the Senate floor, a Democratic procedural measure that would have moved the Senate to a vote to extend the debt ceiling through the end of 2014, with no contingencies attached, fell after it failed to secure the 60 votes required.
There was then hope that a bipartisan bill, by the Maine Republican senator Susan Collins with input from a West Virginia Democrat, Joe Manchin, might offer a way forward. That would have increased the borrowing limit until January 2014 and reopening the government until March, in return for concessions aimed at pleasing Republicans, who precipiated the crisis when they failed to pass a budget resolution to ontinue the funding of federal services without measures designed to undermine the Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature healthcare reform.
However in a sign of the disarray that has affected an apparently directionless Capitol Hill, interest in that proposal lasted no more than a few hours.
The risk of a possible US default – which most economists agree would be catastrophic and reverberate across the world – has concentrated minds on Capitol Hill. Some Repulbicans have become increasligly concerned that they are being blamed for the crisis. They hoped that by focusing on the unpopularity of Obamacare and characterising the president's stance as a refusal to negotiate, that the White House would be seen as responsible for the first shutdown since 1996.
But an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this week showed the public largely blaming Republicans, with the party suffering its all-time worst rating since the survey began. Support for Obama's health reforms, which were introduced on the day the shutdown began, has increased despite early problems with enrolment websites.