Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013 | 5 p.m.
In the weeks since the current fiscal crisis began, there hasn’t been anyone in Washington more vocally skeptical of Republicans’ commitment to fund the government and raise the debt limit than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But with just a few days left before the country defaults, he’s the guy now sounding the most strikingly bullish about the chances of a last-minute deal.
“I’m optimistic about the prospects for a positive conclusion to the issues before this country today,” Reid said Sunday, at the end of a weekend session — a rare but increasingly common occurrence as Congress tackles recurrent fiscal crises. “I have had a productive conversation with the Republican leader this afternoon. Our discussions were substantive, and we’ll continue those discussions.”
The negotiations between Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, which commenced Saturday morning, are the latest chapter of Republican-Democrat diplomacy.
In the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the shutdown that began Oct. 1, cross-party engagement was almost nonexistent, save for the volley of scathing epithets party leaders lobbed across the Capitol at each other in public speeches and statements.
Late last week, President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner briefly tried to revive a negotiating channel that has faltered since the two party leaders failed to strike a “grand bargain” deal concerning the debt, taxation, spending cuts and entitlement reform in the summer of 2011.
Since then, the Reid-McConnell team has carried many fiscal crises across the finish line.
But while Reid was sure Sunday that they would resolve the shutdown and debt limit crisis before Thursday’s default deadline, McConnell, quite notably, did not agree.
“It’s time for Democrat leaders to take ‘yes’ for an answer,” McConnell said Sunday.
Senate Republicans — who are quick to criticize their House counterparts for trying to go too far — are losing their patience with Democrats, who are playing hardball and sticking to their bargaining position.
“House Republicans overreached. No question,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn, on Sunday. “But there’s a little bit of a problem on both sides of the aisle, let’s face it.”
On Saturday, Reid and his Democratic leadership team summarily rejected a compromise plan from Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine. It would have raised the debt limit enough to cover six months of borrowing in exchange for a two-year repeal of a medical device tax that partially funds Obamacare but that both parties find objectionable; an income-verification requirement to qualify for health care subsidies on the exchanges; and a guarantee that budget levels will reflect the strictures of the sequester.
The sequester lopped $1.2 trillion of government spending across all agencies when a Reid-divined congressional Super Committee couldn’t come up with a way to reduce the deficit on its own. The sequester is set to squeeze government spending by an additional $89 billion in fiscal 2014, capping it at $967 billion.
That figure is actually less than what either Boehner’s Republicans or Reid’s Democrats were gunning for throughout the pre-crisis budgeting process: Reid wanted to effectively erase the sequester with a $1.058 trillion budget, but agreed — as he has frequently reminded reporters during the shutdown — that he agreed to Boehner’s demands for a $986 billion cap; a $70 billion squeeze.
Reid demonstrated little patience with the idea of respecting the full sequester, this weekend, even in framework form.
“Susan Collins is one of my favorite senators, Democrat or Republican,” Reid said Saturday. “But the plan that I’ve seen in writing is not going to go anyplace at this stage.”
Yet talks are ongoing between Reid and McConnell and between Collins and rank-and-file Democrats who see the potential to tweak and twist her plan into something acceptable.
“There are negotiations, but there is no agreement,” Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Angus King, I-Maine, Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Sunday in a joint statement on Collins’ proposal.
Like Reid, they noted their discussions with Collins and other Republicans were “productive, bipartisan” but echoed that they “do not support the proposal in its current form.”
The Senate and House return to the Capitol on Monday afternoon. The default deadline, according to the Treasury Department, is Thursday.