WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders Saturday rejected a proposal from Maine Sen. Susan Collins to end the government shutdown and extend the nation’s debt limit, potentially sinking a plan that she and other Republicans hoped would become the framework for a bipartisan deal.
“Susan Collins is one of my favorite senators, Democrat or Republican, and I appreciate her efforts, as always, to find a consensus,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “But the plan that she has suggested … is not going to go anyplace at this stage.”
It was another day of both political maneuvering and closed-door negotiations in Washington as Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., essentially took over negotiations from rank-and-file members. The two met early Saturday to discuss a way out of the impasse.
Later, Senate Republicans angered Democrats by voting to block consideration of a bill that would have increased the debt ceiling by $1 trillion and extended it through 2014.
Meanwhile, the House Republican caucus that used budget negotiations to try to gut the Affordable Care Act said it had been essentially sidelined by the White House. The day closed with few signs that Congress and the White House were close to a deal to reopen shuttered government offices and avoid a government default that many economists predict would have severe economic consequences.
“The trend is better than it has been, but we don’t have much time,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., often a senior negotiator for the Senate Democrats.
The pressure is on the bitterly divided Congress to reach a compromise before the government finds itself with too little cash on hand to pay the bills, which Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said could happen as soon as Thursday. Economists and financial experts warn that defaulting on the national debt could send financial markets plummeting, jack up interest rates, throw the United States back into a recession and destabilize the global economy.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of workers are still on unpaid furlough – and hundreds of thousands more are working without pay – because of the government shutdown.
The effects of the shutdown also grow each day as government programs exhaust available cash reserves. For instance, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has warned that it will be unable to make disability compensation and pension benefits payments to more than 5 million veterans and surviving family members by month’s end unless VA offices are reopened.
The shutdown resulted from partisan disagreement over the budget and the Affordable Care Act. Conservative Republicans sought to link funding for government operations to the health care act in an effort to gut the program. House Republicans have since passed numerous piecemeal approaches to funding specific government functions, but Democrats have rejected most of those amid demands that Congress fully reopen government.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine said Saturday that he has signed a petition to allow a vote on a continuing resolution to fund the federal government.
He says the discharge petition would allow a majority of members to bypass the speaker of the House and force a vote on the bill.
Michaud, who is running for governor in 2014, said Saturday that Congress will get to vote to end the shutdown if all members who say they would vote to reopen the government sign the petition.
The situation remained extremely fluid Saturday, as evidenced by events surrounding Collins’ proposal. Collins planned to hold a midafternoon news conference in the Capitol with other senators – including several Democrats – to discuss their plan. But the event was co-opted by Democratic leaders holding their own news conference in the same space, which is when Reid announced that Collins’ plan would not “go anyplace at this stage.” Collins’ event was then scrapped.
A moderate Republican known for working across the aisle, Collins was lead author of a proposal that had picked up some notable supporters in Republican ranks and reportedly a number of Democrats as well.
The group broadened the plan in recent days to include: funding the federal government for another six months; extending the debt limit to Jan. 31, 2014; delaying a 2.3 percent medical device tax included in the Affordable Care Act; requiring income verification for people who seek federal subsidies for health insurance through the health care act; giving federal agencies flexibility in implementing the across-the-board budget cuts known as “sequestration;” and requiring budget negotiations between the chambers.
But the Collins-backed plan would not have eliminated or replaced the sequestration budget cuts, which is a top priority for Democrats. Democrats also want a longer extension of the debt ceiling.
Asked if sequestration – $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts levied over 10 years – was central to the Democrats’ concerns, Schumer said “yes.”
“I am not a supporter of the Collins plan at this time because it brings in the sequester,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and influential voice in the Senate.
While Collins’ plan included two general provisions that Democrats support – reopening federal offices shuttered for 12 days and extending the debt ceiling – Reid said “there is little agreement with us” on the other aspects.
Collins said the plan she has put forward with Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska continues to draw interest, despite what she called Reid’s “unfortunate dismissal” of the proposal.
“For example, six Senate Republicans and six Senate Democrats met twice today to discuss how we could move forward with the plan or some version of it,” Collins said in a statement. “These meetings were constructive and give me hope that a bipartisan solution to reopen government and prevent default is within our reach.”
It was clear Saturday that the proposal faced hurdles within House Republican ranks as well, however.
“I don’t like it,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Budget Committee, according to Reuters. Ryan said there were too many problems to list with the proposal.
But Senate Democrats were also angered by Senate Republicans’ decision to block consideration of a Democratic bill to lift the debt ceiling by $1 trillion and extend the debt limit through the end of 2014. Collins voted with other Republicans to block consideration, while Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, voted to proceed with the bill.
“It’s troubling to me that not a single Republican would step up to allow us to start the debate on whether or not we avoid the debt ceiling default in just four days,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate majority whip.
Republicans, however, have made clear that they would not vote for a $1 trillion debt ceiling increase without spending reductions or changes to benefits programs that are driving up the cost of government.
“I don’t see the House or the Senate Republicans agreeing to a year debt ceiling (extension) at all, quite frankly,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Friday. “I think we should have an increase in the debt ceiling long enough to give us a chance to address our underlying debt problems.”
Democratic leaders returned to the White House on Saturday afternoon for a meeting with President Obama. With pressure now on Reid and McConnell, the Democrat said he hoped the fact that the two leaders were meeting would offer some “solace” to the American people. But he also acknowledged the challenges facing the two leaders within their own caucuses.
“He’s got problems, I’ve got problems,” Reid said. “That’s how arrangements are made.”
Kevin Miller can be reached at (207) 317-6256 or at :