WASHINGTON – Even as White House negotiators continue to wrangle with House Republican negotiators, separate discussions with GOP senators appear to be picking up steam after a meeting with President Obama.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the meeting “very useful.”
"We're back here to actually work on trying to get a solution on a bipartisan basis,” McConnell said. “Hopefully we can find a way forward."
"It did not lead to a specific course of action,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said of the more than 90-minute discussion at the White House.
Collins said she was “concerned” about the pace of the burgeoning talks. "That's what I feel is really missing – there's a need for a sense of urgency,” she said.
Republican senators said the president appeared to be prioritizing a separate negotiation with their counterparts in the House. The Republican senators were the last group of lawmakers to meet with Obama over two days of what the White House has called “conversations” about ending the 10-day-old government shutdown and lifting the threat of a federal default.
Roughly a dozen senators spoke during the meeting, participants said.
Before their session Thursday afternoon, House Republicans proposed a temporary increase in the debt limit, allowing the government to borrow enough money to cover expenses for six weeks, while broader deficit reduction negotiations continue. Later Thursday, House Republicans added a plan to reopen the government on a temporary basis, if Democrats would agree to separate talks over the budget.
The House offer was the most significant break in weeks of stalemate and has spurred momentum behind finding a deal. Still, Senate Republicans continued to push their own alternatives.
One, proposed by Collins, a moderate from Maine, would fund the federal government for six months and raise the debt limit for a short term, repeal the tax on medical-device makers, and give flexibility to federal agencies to manage the so-called sequester budget cuts imposed by Congress earlier this year.
Collins told reporters that the president liked some of her proposal, but was noncommittal. "He described it as constructive and having elements of it that could be worked on, but I don’t want to give the impression that he endorsed it and said, 'What a great plan,'" she said.
Some House Republicans have said they oppose Collins' plans, arguing that it cedes too much control to the president. That’s left the president in a negotiation triangle, and it was not immediately clear if the White House would embrace either Republican proposal.
The president has said he won’t agree to any concessions on healthcare or budget issues until the government is reopened and the debt limit extended, removing the threat of a federal default.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the meeting led to "nothing concrete," but called it a good meeting.
"Opening up the entire government is going to require some changes to Obamacare that should have happened a long time ago," he said. Graham would like to see the medical-device tax delayed for at least two years, number of hours per week defined as part-time employment increased and the threshold definition of a small business to be adjusted upward from 50 employees.
"Those are things that change the law without gutting the law,” he said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said it appeared that Obama was still engaged in talks with the House Republicans. "He was clear that he was having discussions with the House. He wasn't trying to say that he was going to reach some agreement independent of them at all," she said.
But she said of the House: "I'm not sure what their plan is."
Still, Republicans seemed hopeful that some consensus was forming.
"Even though Senate Republicans have a different approach than the House Republicans, I just have a sense over the weekend some significant gelling is going to take place,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)
Times staff writers Brian Bennett and Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.