Fed up with House, senators grab at reins of fiscal debate

Senate Republicans have become fed up with fellow Republicans in the House and are meeting with Democrats to find a way out of the current fiscal impasse.

They are discussing a deal to amend a clean debt-limit increase expected from the House that would pressure the lower chamber to reopen the government next week.

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Senate Republicans have rejected a House GOP plan to pass a clean six-week debt-limit increase because it would leave the government shuttered and give President Obama a major concession.

“It’s unacceptable because it’s clean. [Senate] Republicans have a really hard time figuring out why supporting a clean debt limit is a good idea after we spent four years talking against that,” said a Senate GOP aide.

They believe it would undermine their ability to demand concessions on entitlement reform and other deficit-reduction issues when the temporary debt-limit measure expired at year’s end.

Senate Republicans cannot understand either why their House counterparts want to prolong the government shutdown that has caused their party’s approval rating to drop in the polls.

“What planet are they on?” said one Republican senator, who expressed disbelief the House proposal does not address the shutdown.

Senate Republicans are now in talks with Democrats, including the Senate Democratic leadership, about putting together a deal to open the government and extend the debt limit, according to GOP sources.

“The country is disgusted with the government being shut down, and so am I. I'm not in the 'shut down the government' crowd. I’m in the 'take over the government' crowd and this is not helping,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said.

Alexander dismissed the House GOP plan to pass a clean six-week debt limit increase.

“We’re working on our own plan. I think it will be better,” he said.

The package would include a yearlong government funding measure, an increase in the debt limit and a repeal of the medical device tax.

Senate Republicans say the stopgap should be set at $967 billion, the level required by the 2011 Budget Control Act, and the debt limit should not be extended by more than 6 months.

They also want language setting up a process to verify the income claims of people applying for federal subsidies through the healthcare exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.

Senate Democrats have countered with a proposal to delay the medical device tax for two years, according to Senate sources familiar with the talks. Democrats also want to increase the nation’s borrowing authority by enough to last until after the 2014 midterm election.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who has stayed out of the public spotlight during the government shutdown fight, is leading the talks.

A Senate GOP aide said McConnell is facilitating the conversation.

“McConnell is providing a venue for members to discuss potential solutions to a crisis that [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] has been ignoring at best or inflaming at worst,” the aide said.

A Senate Democratic aide cautioned the debate could unfold in several directions because it’s not yet certain whether the House would even pass a clean short-term debt-limit increase, as GOP leaders indicated Thursday morning.

“What is the House proposal? Because it changes every five minutes. We will wait until they hand us something that represents what they can pass in the House or what they can agree to in the House,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “We’re waiting for a clear signal from them about where they stand.”

When asked if he could support a six-week extension of the debt limit, Durbin said, “the longer the better.”

At a nearly two-hour meeting at the White House, President Obama urged Senate Democrats to hold off on expressing any support for a debt-ceiling increase that does not also reopen the government, according to lawmakers who attended it.

Reid endorsed Obama’s position at a press conference afterward.

“I feel the same way,” he said. “The government should be open. Now we should be able to pay our debts, and as we’ve said and will continue to say, we, if that happens, will negotiate on anything.”

House GOP leaders met with Obama at the White House later in the day and said they would hold talks late into the evening to find a potential compromise.

House Republicans might not even vote on the six-week debt-limit extension.

Reid on Thursday evening set up a vote to end debate on proceeding to a clean 14-month extension of the debt limit.

The Senate will vote on the measure Saturday unless lawmakers waive procedural requirements.

Senate Republicans have vowed to block the legislation, which would increase the nation’s borrowing authority by an estimated $1.1 trillion.

— Russell Berman contributed.