WASHINGTON – Senate leaders abruptly put talks over a bipartisan budget plan on hold Tuesday to give embattled Speaker John A. Boehner an opportunity to put together a proposal that could pass the Republican-led House.
Top Republicans portrayed the pause as an effort to save Boehner’s influence and prevent the House from being fully dominated by its most ardent conservatives, whom many in the Senate blame for having launched the party on a budget strategy that has failed.
Republican senators suggested the House had 24 hours to act before the only option would be to return to the Senate’s framework, negotiated by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as the way out of the stalemate.
Even that delay could prove risky, however, with two days remaining before the Treasury Department says it will run out of maneuvering room to pay all the government’s bills.
A spokesman for Boehner said there would be a vote scheduled for today.
In the House, Boehner (R-Ohio) struggled to come up with an alternative that could win enough support from conservatives to pass. Republican leaders floated one proposal early in the day, only to withdraw it in the face of opposition from conservatives. All afternoon, talks continued between members of the leadership and the restive House conservatives.
“We are talking with our members on both sides of the aisle to try to find a way to move forward today,” Boehner said after the morning House GOP meeting, flanked by his leadership team.
Conservatives had wanted to use the dual threats of a government shutdown and the need to raise the government’s debt ceiling to force President Obama to stop the Affordable Care Act. But with the government shutdown now in its third week, Republicans have dropped badly in public opinion polls, and many are ready to call a halt to the fight.
“I can understand fighting for your cause, but there comes a point when you have an obligation to the country as a whole,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
“The best thing for the country is for John Boehner to be able to deliver,” he said. “I just hope our colleagues in the House who believe it’s better to have more Republicans, not less, a governing majority, rather than a dysfunctional majority, will help John when he needs their help.”
House Republicans talked openly of the divisions in their ranks.
"There will be some in the conference who don't think this House proposal goes far enough," Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a leading House moderate, said of Boehner’s plan. "There are no winners in this process, only losers. The only question is ... who is losing more?"
But other Republicans were more resigned, realizing that it's possible that no GOP compromise proposal will have support to pass in the House, leaving Boehner with few options but to accept the Senate plan or risk a debt default after Thursday.
“If our party can’t pass this, then there’s no doubt we’re going to end up with what the Senate sends us,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) “Look, if my colleagues can’t muster together, and sometimes accept good because they’re waiting for perfect, then that’s on them.”
Boehner reiterated that he did not want to see the country default on its obligations. “I have made clear for months and months that the idea of default is wrong, and we shouldn't get anywhere close to it,” he said.
The speaker’s plan Tuesday morning would have accepted key parts of the Senate deal: reopening the federal government by extending current spending levels through Jan. 15, and raising the nation's debt limit through Feb. 7.
But by midday, the plan had shifted to provide funds for agencies only through Dec. 15, potentially reviving a shutdown threat just before the holiday shopping season that could damp consumer spending.
The House plan also would end the government's payment of its traditional employers share of health insurance premiums for members of Congress and administration officials, who are now required to purchase medical insurance through the online marketplaces. Democrats have previously rejected that idea, which is popular among Republican activists but unpopular with many lawmakers.
As the day went on, GOP leaders bolstered that provision, known as the Vitter amendment, to cover staff working for members of Congress. The proposal amounts to a pay cut of several thousand dollars for those affected.
The House plan also would end the Treasury Department's ability to use so-called "extraordinary measures" to continue paying the government’s bills after the debt limit has been breached.
The early reaction from Democrats was swift and unified.
“The president has said repeatedly that members of Congress don’t get to demand ransom for fulfilling their basic responsibilities to pass a budget and pay the nation’s bills,” said spokeswoman Amy Brundage.
Reid said he was “blindsided” by the House Republicans’ “extreme” offer, coming as he and were narrowing on their compromise proposal.
“Extremist Republicans in the House of Representatives are attempting to torpedo the Senate’s bipartisan progress with a bill that can’t pass the Senate – can’t pass the Senate – and won’t pass the Senate,” Reid said.
But Boehner got an unexpected boost from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). A vocal critic of the tea party wing’s budget strategy, McCain condemned the Democrats’ refusal to entertain the House proposal, a sign the Senate’s bipartisan plan may be running into head winds from that chamber’s conservatives.
“For the majority leader and the Democrats in the House and the White House to say absolutely, categorically not, we will not consider what the Republicans in the House of Representatives are doing, in my view, is piling on and it’s not right,” McCain said.
One key question is how much time will be needed for Senate consideration of whatever legislation the House might pass. Tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who led the effort to use the budget in a fight against Obamacare, has not said whether he would try to filibuster a bill to reopen the government. Neither Cruz nor tea party colleague Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) attended Tuesday’s GOP strategy lunch.
Not all GOP senators were pleased with the new delays.
“We have an obligation to act,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has led efforts to frame the Senate compromise.
“The bipartisan plan that the group that I’ve been working with offers the best path forward. I had hoped the two leaders would have an agreement by now,” she said. “I think that the Senate needs to act first. There’s more chance of an agreement being reached in the Senate, and that we need to lead.”