As Senate seeks deal, partisan fights continue

Senate majority leader Harry Reid wants to curtail the sequester cuts as part of any potential deal.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Senate majority leader Harry Reid wants to curtail the sequester cuts as part of any potential deal.

WASHINGTON — Democratic and Republican Senate leaders talked privately Sunday in an attempt to find the threads to a budget deal as members of both parties publicly berated the other for shutting down the government and pushing the nation toward a default on its debt Thursday.

Some Republicans faulted President Obama for refusing to link a budget deal to changes to his signature health care law or agree to more curbs on federal spending. Some Democrats made new demands of their own, suggesting that any deal reverse some automatic spending cuts that began taking effect earlier this year.

After talks broke down in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Saturday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat of Nevada, and minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, spoke by phone Sunday in an effort to find a face-saving way out for both sides.


“We’re in conversation today,” Reid said on the floor of the Senate, which convened briefly on Sunday. “I’m confident the Republicans will allow the government to open and extend the ability of the country to pay its bills. And I’m going to do everything I can throughout the day to accomplish just this.”

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He closed the session by saying he was “optimistic.”

Some members of Congress were still pinning their hopes on a proposal floated last week by Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, that would raise the nation’s debt limit until Jan. 31 and fund the federal government through March 2014. Collins had proposed a delay in a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices that helps fund the health care law, but the idea was rejected by a number of Democrats and Republicans.

Collins, a moderate who had hoped to be a bridge between the parties, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” she was “still hopeful that at least we sparked a dialogue that did not exist before we put out a plan.”

McConnell said in a statement Sunday that the Collins plan would “reopen the government, prevent a default, provide opportunity for additional budget negotiations around Washington’s long-term debt, and maintain the commitment that Congress made [in 2011] to reduce Washington spending.”


But the Collins plan would leave in place automatic budget cuts known as sequester, which Reid expressed a new desire to curtail in any potential deal.

Meanwhile, the central dispute remained. The White House, at least publicly, insists that no other legislation, particularly any that would alter the health law, be attached to a vote on funding the government or raising the debt ceiling; a number of Republicans demand the law be defunded in exchange for ending the shutdown.

Financial markets braced for a potentially tumultuous week. Leaders at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank demanded Sunday that US leaders solve the debt ceiling impasse, with Christine Lagarde, managing director of the fund, warning on NBC’s “Meet the Press’’ that failure could create “massive disruption the world over.”

The White House said Obama spoke with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat of California, and stressed the need for both the debt limit increase and a stopgap funding bill to open the government. Only then would the White House be open to a longer-term budget agreement.

Obama’s stance came under blistering attack from Republicans who spoke the national Sunday morning news shows.


“This is the first time in history that a president of the United States has said, ‘Look, I’m not even going to talk about it,’ ” Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He urged Obama to engage GOP leaders.

“You’ve got to deal with the underlying problem, which is the spending problem,” he said.

As the members of Congress appeared on talk shows, another type of political theater was taking place on the grounds of the World War II Memorial, located on the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. The site has been closed to visitors because of the shutdown since Oct. 1, although some groups of veterans have been able to visit.

A group of protesters cut through the barriers blocking visitors. They heard speeches from a several Tea Party figures such as Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, as well as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, all of whom railed against the Obama administration.

The memorial has become a focal point of the current standoff, where visiting World War II vets previously broke through the National Park Service barricades. The Republican National Committee earlier this month offered to pay to keep the memorial open during the shutdown.

On Sunday, the protesters accused Obama of using veterans as political props. “We are here to honor our vets,” Palin said. “You look around though and you see these barricades and you have to ask yourself is this any way that a commander in chief would show his respect, his gratitude to our military. This is a matter of shutdown priorities.”

The Democratic National Committee seized on the event to try to portray the Republican Party as out of the mainstream.

“The event was marked by Confederate flags, signs calling for the impeachment of President Obama, and one speaker imploring the president to ‘put the Koran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up,’ ” said Michael Czin, national press secretary for the DNC. “The future of the GOP was on display at the White House today and it wasn’t pretty.”

Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee, said he could not speak for the GOP figures at the rally.

But he said “those monuments would all be open if Senate Democrats had taken up the bills sent to them. The irony is that the House of Representatives has passed 15 bills that the Senate Democrats would not take up that would have opened the government.”

The GOP-controlled House has passed a number of bills that would provide funding for discrete government functions that have been shut down, such as money for national parks. The Democratic-controlled Senate has rejected most of those measures on grounds that the government should be reopened entirely, not by piecemeal legislation.

On the national Sunday news shows, meanwhile, some leading senators urged their colleagues in both chambers to open up to some compromise.

“To my colleagues in the House on both sides, and to my friends in the Senate, we’re ruining both institutions,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Bryan Bender can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender