WASHINGTON -- Amid suddenly fast-moving talks, the Senate’s top two leaders expressed optimism Monday that the contours of a budget deal were emerging to reopen the federal government and raise the nation’s debt limit.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) engaged in intense negotiations throughout the morning and were seemingly able to kick-start talks.
A scheduled mid-afternoon meeting at the White House between congressional leaders and President Obama was postponed until later in the day as the negotiators continued their work.
“Instructive good-faith negotiations continue between the Republican leader and me,” Reid said as the two leaders opened the Senate. “I am very optimistic that we will reach an agreement that’s reasonable in nature this week.”
“Let me just echo the remarks of my good friend,” McConnell said. “I share his optimism.”
"We're optimistic we're going be able to come together,” McConnell added as he left the Senate floor and returned to his office.
Any Senate deal still faces potential turbulence in the House, where the conservative majority has pushed for deeper cuts in federal spending and been resistant to any proposal that would end the standoff without significant concessions by Obama and the Democrats.
The president had summoned the Senate leaders -- along with their counterparts in the House, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) -- to the White House as the shutdown that has idled the federal government entered its third week. In addition to the continuing shutdown, failure by Congress to raise the debt limit by Thursday could risk a catastrophic default that would jolt global economies.
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In the Senate, negotiations remained “very fluid,” one senior aide cautioned, but the contours of a potential deal have begun to come into focus:
The debt limit would be raised into early 2014, not past next November’s midterm elections, as Democrats had initially sought. Government agencies would reopen, with money provided until roughly mid-December. That timing would be a win for Reid because it would allow negotiations on a longer-term spending measure before a new round of across-the-board spending cuts -- the so-called sequester -- is scheduled to begin in January.
Democrats hope to use the negotiations to ease those cuts, which started earlier this year. The Pentagon would take the biggest hit in the next round of cuts, which means that some defense-oriented Republicans would also like to see the sequester eased.
Leaving the fate of the sequester unresolved in this round of talks would mean the budget battles would continue this fall and winter.
The budget negotiators have also been considering whether to include a delay or repeal of a new tax on medical-device makers that is part of Obama’s healthcare law, as well as some other small changes in the law that having backing from Democrats.
“We continue to discuss the parameters of an agreement,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who brokered a bipartisan agreement over the weekend that was rejected by Democrats but which continues to provide outlines for a possible deal. “Our leaders are having discussions ... and I’m very pleased to learn those discussions have picked up pace.”