Senate leaders launch shutdown talks; GOP, White House at impasse

WASHINGTON — As talks over how to end the government shutdown and avert a default on the debt collapsed Saturday between House Republicans and the White House, the Senate's top leaders launched their own negotiations to find a last-ditch compromise, but the day drew to a close with no indication that they had made significant progress.

Speaker John A. Boehner told House Republicans that President Obama had rejected their efforts to enter into more substantive negotiations, according to lawmakers who attended the closed-door session. The Ohio Republican said it was now up to Senate Republicans to hold firm to extract concessions on the president's healthcare law and federal spending.

On Saturday morning, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) met in Reid's office for an hour, the first time they have sat down together to discuss a resolution since the government shutdown began 12 days ago.

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"The conversation was extremely cordial but very preliminary — nothing conclusive," Reid said at a news conference. "This should be seen as something very positive — even though we don't have anything done yet and there is a long ways to go."

Senate Republicans have expressed frustration with the apparent indifference of their House counterparts to the political toll that has been taken on the party by the shutdown and the threat of a potentially catastrophic default on the nation's debt.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of a dwindling band of GOP moderates, began working to build support for a compromise plan. Separately, McConnell made entreaties to Reid. He asked Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to begin informal talks with Democrats, which led to Saturday's sit-down between the two Republicans, Reid and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate's No. 3 Democrat.

On Saturday, Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic plan to suspend the debt limit through next year. But senators from both parties said there was an urgent need to pass legislation to raise the nation's borrowing limit as soon as possible before Thursday. The Treasury Department has said that it will no longer be able to borrow money on that day, raising the risk of default.

Reid and other Democratic leaders briefed Obama on the talks Saturday afternoon; no further talks between Reid and McConnell were expected Saturday night. Aides said the conversations between party leaders remained at an early stage.

The Senate was set to hold a rare Sunday session — the first since last year's impasse over the fiscal cliff — to consider a deal, if one is reached. The House adjourned for the weekend after a brief and at times chaotic session.

Collins has offered a proposal to temporarily raise the debt limit and reopen the government in exchange for delaying the medical-device tax in the Affordable Care Act and other concessions. She said her proposal continued "to attract bipartisan support," and she planned to continue to consult with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. But Reid said her plan was "not going anyplace."

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"The real conversation that matters now is the one that's taking place between McConnell and Reid," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said after attending a strategy session at which Republican senators were briefed on the talk.

Reid said Republicans have abandoned their drive to gut the Affordable Care Act and have focused on reducing government spending. "Their No. 1 issue is to do anything they can to divert attention from the fools they've made of themselves on Obamacare," he said.

Since McConnell cut the deal last December with Vice President Joe Biden to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, he has largely stayed out of budget talks. With a potentially tough reelection battle that includes a challenge from his right, McConnell has emphasized conservative priorities, such as opposing measures on gun control and immigration reform.

His move to reenter the fray reflects McConnell's calculation that his ultimate political goal — leading a Senate with a Republican majority — was imperiled by the hard-line position of the Republicans in the House.

As the government shutdown moved into its second week, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll offered sobering numbers for the party. The survey indicated that the public overwhelmingly blamed the GOP and increasingly opposed an effort by conservatives to use the shutdown as leverage to dismantle Obama's healthcare law. That trend, were it to continue, could strengthen the position of Democratic incumbents in traditionally Republican states and hurt GOP candidates in Democratic-leaning states.

Notably, the compromise effort in the Senate was led by Collins, the only Republican who is seeking reelection next year in a state that Obama carried in 2012. Alexander, too, faces reelection. Both senators appear safe at this early stage, but Collins in particular has said it is important for Republicans to improve their standing with voters.

"There's no doubt that the Republican poll numbers are appallingly bad — the Democrats are going down also. But there's a more important issue here than poll numbers, and that is about our ability to govern and to show the American people that we can do what is right and that we care about them," Collins said. "And I hope that isn't lost in this continuing attempt to score partisan political points."

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Many House Republicans are inoculated against broader national political trends, thanks to a redistricting process that cemented the party's majority. More than two-thirds of House Republicans represent districts in which Mitt Romney defeated Obama by 10 percentage points or more in 2012. Of 232 Republicans serving in the House, only 17 represent districts that Obama won outright.

One of those Republicans, Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), had a heated exchange  Saturday with a member of the House GOP leadership over what he said was the party's failure "to be able to articulate specific objectives."

"If Eric Cantor and John Boehner can't answer the question ‘What are we fighting for,' that's not good!" Rigell told Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference.

Other House Republicans charged that the White House was pitting Republicans in the two chambers against one another. "I think what he's trying to do is undermine our position by getting the Senate to cut some kind of ridiculous deal," said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.).

Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman and former vice presidential candidate, accused the White House of "trying to cut the House out, and trying to jam us with the Senate."

A similar scenario played out at the start of the year to resolve the so-called fiscal cliff, when the deal worked out between McConnell and Biden won overwhelming approval in the Senate and forced House leaders to allow a vote that passed with only limited Republican support.

"We're not going to roll over and take that," Ryan said after leaving the closed-door Republican meeting.

But Boehner's message to the rank-and-file was also an admission that the House had run out of options.

"If I'm sitting on the Senate side, I'm not going to sit around and say, ‘Gosh hopefully the House Republicans will do something.' I'm going to get to work," said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. "It would be nice to be able to coordinate together, but I get that."

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