By Alexander Bolton and Peter Schroeder - 10/12/13 05:29 PM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) are taking the lead on talks to raise the debt limit and reopen the government, according to senators.
Reid and McConnell are working off a six-point proposal sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would fund the government for six months and raise the debt ceiling until Jan. 31, 2014.
“Reid and McConnell are talking now and those discussions continue so I see that as progress,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
“There are a number of different elements,” he added. “The fact that they’re actually talking for the first time represents significant progress.”
Democrats said they could not accept the Collins offer as it now stands.
"I admire Sen. Collins's intent but her six-month CR presents too many problems," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
During a Senate vote on Saturday, a large number of Democratic senators huddled around an animated Collins to discuss the situation.
Collins's offer would also delay for two years a tax on medical devices intended to pay for a portion of the healthcare law's costs. It would also strengthen efforts to prevent fraud by people who get tax subsidies to pay for ObamaCare.
GOP senators said talks on a deal to raise the debt ceiling and end the shutdown are now in the Senate, and not the House.
“The real conversation that matters now is the one that's taking place between McConnell and Reid,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “We're at place where something important has evolved.”
“Earnest" talks between the two Senate party leaders began in the last 24 hours, as talks between the White House and House Republicans fizzled, he said.
Corker said Senate Republicans were providing McConnell with "a lot of support" in the fledgling talks.
However, he also made clear that the Senate would likely move a compromise package, if one emerged, without first clearing it with the Republican majority in the House.
"I'm not sure the House is at a place where they could send something over right now that 218 Republicans agree on, so I think that would be hard to negotiate," he said.
Reid and McConnell met with Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Democratic leader, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) Saturday morning to discuss the outlines of a deal.
“My hope is that Sen. McConnell and Sen. Reid will work together to come up with a way for us to open the government and pay our bills and reduce our debt," Alexander said. "And if they can do that over the next few hours, the country will be better off.”
House Republicans worry their GOP colleagues in the upper chamber will cut a deal that does little to undermine ObamaCare and jam them with legislation to raise the debt limit shortly before the Oct. 17 deadline.
Alexander said Senate Republicans are moving ahead, anyway.
“We can’t control the House. We have to do the best we can, send it to the House, and they have to do the best they can,” he said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned GOP leaders not to sign onto any agreement that leaves the healthcare law largely intact.
“Providing significant relief to the millions of Americans who are hurting because of ObamaCare, that should be the focus,” Cruz told reporters.
“Republicans in the House are working to fund vital priorities and they’re also working to provide meaningful relief to the millions of people across this country who have lost their jobs, who have lost their healthcare because of ObamaCare,” he said. “That’s what our focus should be and that’s what I’m urging people both privately and publicly to do.”
Cruz criticized Senate Democrats for not picking up House-passed bills to fund various government agencies during the shutdown.
This story was updated at 1:29 p.m.