Senate plots House GOP squeeze

Greg Nash

The White House and the Senate are working to squeeze House Republicans into accepting a bipartisan compromise from the upper chamber to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.

Any emerging deal, however, will leave ObamaCare largely intact, angering conservatives who have demanded defunding or delaying President Obama’s signature achievement.

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House Republicans are fuming over the prospect that Senate Democrats and Republicans are working on a plan to jam them with a last-minute deal they would have to accept or risk triggering a federal default.

“They are trying to jam us with the Senate and we are not going to roll over and take that,” House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters after a Saturday morning conference meeting.

Senate Democrats reasserted themselves Saturday in the government funding and debt-ceiling debate after talks between Obama and House Republicans collapsed the previous day.

After Obama gave House Republicans reason on Thursday to hope for concessions, Senate Democrats reined those expectations back.

They do not intend to grant Senate Republicans any significant victories in exchange for opening the government or increasing borrowing authority, dimming the possibility of a deal before stock markets open Monday.

Senate Democrats rejected a proposal sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), which many Senate Republicans hoped could lay the groundwork for a deal.

“It is not going anyplace at this stage,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters. “Number one, it opens the government; number two, it extends the debt ceiling. But other than that there is little agreement with us.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, told Collins on the Senate floor the proposal was unacceptable because it would lock in federal spending for six months at the levels set by the House GOP, according to a source familiar with the conversation.

Senate Democrats instead want to craft a budget deal that would eliminate the so-called sequestration levels.

Senate Republicans warn Reid will face a public backlash if he refuses to seriously consider what they consider a pragmatic offer from Collins.

“If they reject a good-faith offer and everybody in the middle would define Collins as a good-faith offer, then the charade that they’re negotiating would fall apart,” said a Senate GOP aide.

The Collins plan would fund the government at an annual rate of $986 billion for six months; extend the debt limit until Jan. 31, 2014; delay the medical device tax for two years and provide federal agencies greater flexibility to manage spending levels under sequestration.

It would also set up an income verification process to prevent fraud in the healthcare insurance exchanges and convene bicameral budget talks with an end-date of Jan. 15, 2014.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) dismissed a six-month stopgap at House GOP funding levels.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) suggested a deal could hinge on getting Republicans to agree to higher funding levels for fiscal year 2014.

“It has to get down to this budget number,” he said.

He downplayed the notion that Reid is preparing to make any significant concessions, however.

“Some would call it negotiation. It is basically staking out positions,” he said.

Durbin said the two-year delay of the medical device tax has received a tepid reception in the Senate Democratic caucus.

“It’s been mixed,” he said. “First, it has to be paid for. Second, I don’t think the elimination is the best way to approach it. We already got a call from the American Hospital Association this week, [who] said, ‘Oh, so we’re going to open all the taxes under the Affordable Care Act.’”

Democrats view funding government and raising the debt-ceiling as congressional responsibilities that do not merit concessions.

“They’re not doing us any favor by reopening the government. They’re not doing us a favor by extending the debt ceiling. That’s part of our jobs,” Reid told reporters.

Senate Republicans, distressed by their party’s plunging approval rating and the danger of a severe reaction in the stock markets Monday, are eager to find their way out of the jam.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who stayed out of the battle between Senate Democrats and House Republicans over the government shutdown, began the first serious negotiations with Reid Saturday.

They met with Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Democratic leader, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) in Reid’s office at 9 a.m.

Republicans viewed it as a promising sign.

“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.”

Not all Republicans embraced the Collins plan. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a leading Tea Party voice, warned GOP leaders not to give up the fight to defund ObamaCare.

“Providing significant relief to the millions of Americans who are hurting because of ObamaCare, that should be the focus,” Cruz told reporters.

Alexander said the reaction from House conservatives is not his top concern.

"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.

Democrats downplayed the prospect of reaching a deal anytime soon. Instead they called for Republicans to reconsider their opposition to a 14-month clean debt-ceiling increase, which failed to clear a 60-vote hurdle in the Senate.

“The conversations were extremely cordial, but very preliminary of course, nothing conclusive,” Reid told reporters.

While Obama has let Senate Democrats again take the lead in the negotiations, he remains in close coordination with his allies in Congress, according to Senate Democratic aides.

Reid and other Senate Democratic leaders traveled to the White House to meet with Obama Saturday afternoon.

They reviewed the recent options raised by Republicans and recent days but decided to hold off on jumping on any of the offers until Republicans consolidate their position.

“Their conclusion was that while Democrats remain united, Republicans have yet to coalesce behind a clear negotiating position,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

“The President and the leaders agreed that talks between Senate Democratic and Senate Republican leaders should continue in the coming days, but Democrats' position remains the same: Democrats are willing to negotiate on anything Republicans want to discuss as soon as we reopen the government and pay our bills," the aide added.

Unlike the fractured GOP conferences, the Senate Democratic caucus has not shown any cracks.

“We had a very good caucus today. Democrats were unified and were all united around the principles of open the government, pay our bills and let’s negotiate,” Schumer told reporters after Saturday’s meeting.

Every Senate Democrat voted earlier in the day to move to a clean 14-month extension of the debt ceiling. Reid changed his vote to no so he could bring the measure up again in the next few days.

“I think things are not moving now,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Sunday on "Fox News Sunday." “The last 24 hours have not been good.”

Peter Schroeder and Erik Wasson contributed to this report, which was originally published on Saturday at 6:33 p.m. and was last updated on Sunday at 9:29 a.m.