Saturday, March 8, 2014
WASHINGTON — Negotiations to end a congressional impasse continued Sunday but a deal to reopen government and avoid a federal default remained elusive.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is followed by reporters as she leaves a meeting of Senate Republicans regarding the government shutdown and debt ceiling on Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday.
The Associated Press
Aspects of a proposal spearheaded by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, appeared to still be on the table Sunday, one day after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the plan “is not going to go anyplace at this stage.”
Six senators who sit on the Democratic side of the aisle said they continue to negotiate with Collins and other Republicans. But the group also issued a short joint statement stressing that they did not support the proposal “in its current form,” despite several going on national television Sunday to discuss their bipartisan efforts.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, called on Democrats to “take ‘yes’ for an answer” on the Collins-led plan.
Spending levels and the fate of the “sequestration” budget cuts appear to be the major sticking points in negotiations between Reid and McConnell as well as between rank-and-file members of the two parties.
After inconclusive talks between President Obama and House Republicans, Reid, D-Nev., and McConnell, R-Ky., took charge in trying to end the crisis, although a conversation Sunday afternoon failed to break the stalemate.
“I’m optimistic about the prospects for a positive conclusion to the issues before this country today,” Reid said as the Senate wrapped up a rare Sunday session.
The two cagey negotiators are at loggerheads over Democratic demands to undo or change the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts to domestic and defense programs that Republicans see as crucial to reducing the nation’s deficit.
Collins and about a dozen other senators have been negotiating to end the two-week-old partial shutdown of the federal government and to lift the nation’s borrowing limit in order to avoid a federal default. The proposal was regarded as a possible framework for a broader, bipartisan deal but ran into opposition from Democrats.
On Sunday, six of those participants – Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitcamp of North Dakota, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana – said those talks continue. Although an independent, King caucuses with the Democrats.
“We have been involved in productive, bipartisan discussions with Senator Collins and other Republican senators, but we do not support the proposal in its current form,” the senators said in a joint statement. “There are negotiations, but there is no agreement.”
The group did not list the areas of disagreement, and King spokeswoman Crystal Canney declined to elaborate. Manchin, who has been working closely with Collins in recent days, was not a part of the statement when it was originally released but was added soon thereafter with the explanation that he had been unavailable when the first version went out.
The joint statement was responding to McConnell’s suggestion earlier that there was “a bipartisan plan in place that has the support of Democrat and Republican senators,” a reference to the Collins-led plan. The Washington Post reported that the five senators originally listed on the statement “hustled into Reid’s office” soon after McConnell released his comments.
“It would reopen the government, prevent a default, provide the opportunity for additional budget negotiations around Washington’s long-term debt, and maintain the commitment that Congress made to reduce Washington spending through the Budget Control Act – the law of the land,” McConnell said. “It does all this while maintaining our commitments to reduce spending, cutting an Obamacare tax and improving anti-fraud provisions in the law. It’s time for Democrat leaders to take ‘yes’ for an answer.”
All of this politicking comes at a time when the American public is growing increasingly angry with Congress’ inability to resolve an impasse that has furloughed 350,000 federal workers and threatens to destabilize the global economy.
The six-point plan proposed by Collins and Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska would fund the federal government for another six months and extend the debt limit to Jan. 31, 2014.
The proposal also calls for delaying a 2.3 percent medical device tax included in Obamacare and giving federal agencies flexibility to implement the across-the-board budget cuts known as “sequestration.” But Democrats balked at the fact that the sequestration cuts – the result of a 2011 congressional impasse over the federal deficit – would stay in place during those six months.
Earlier Sunday, Klobuchar appeared alongside Collins on CNN’s Sunday morning news program, “State of the Union.”
Both expressed optimism that a deal was possible before Thursday, which is when Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said his agency will have exhausted all measures to stay below the nation’s borrowing limit. After that, the federal government may not have enough cash to pay its bills and could default on its debts.
Collins said she was surprised that Reid had said the proposal she and others were offering was “not going to go anyplace.”
“I don’t know why he said it and I don’t think it was very constructive,” Collins told CNN’s Candy Crowley. “But the fact is that we have a responsibility to govern and we’re continuing to talk. And I am still hopeful that at least we sparked a dialogue that did not exist before we put out a plan.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at: