House GOP Scrambling To Get Deal Done Before Senate Swoops In

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans appeared to be angling Friday to negotiate over reopening the government and easing budget sequestration, as well as making cuts to entitlement programs.

The Associated Press reported that House GOP leaders were offering a framework to not just pass a short-term increase in the nation's $16.7 trillion debt limit, but to end the 11-day government shutdown, cut entitlement programs and make changes to Obamacare.

Sources told HuffPost, however, that such an assessment may be premature, as House Republicans were still waiting to hear back from the White House on their Thursday offer to raise the debt limit for six weeks in return for the administration starting budget negotiations. They also presented some ideas about a framework for further talks.

House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) spokesman, Michael Steel, sounded a note of caution as well.

"As we have publicly stated, any House vote on a short-term debt limit bill is contingent on the White House and House Republicans agreeing to negotiations on a larger fiscal framework," Steel emailed. "There is no agreement at this point on what that framework would involve, and we don’t plan to comment on the details of these discussions."

Republican lawmakers said Friday that if negotiations do start in earnest, they likely would include many of the wish-list items the GOP has sought before, with an emphasis on items that some Democrats have backed in the past. One such item is the chained consumer price index, a different way of measuring inflation that would effectively slow the growth of Social Security.

"When I look at the president's budget, I look at things like chained CPI, I look at things like means-testing for Medicare, and Medicare savings," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "Those are awfully similar to things in the Ryan budget."

"The other thing here is sequester," said Cole. "If you were in a negotiation, once it starts, operating at sequester number levels, both sides are kind of focused on how you do that," he said, referring to the bipartisan desire to end the across-the-board nature of the budget cuts that came out of the last debt-limit showdown in 2011.

"It gives us something to work on together where they actually both want the same outcome, just in a different way," Cole said.

He said Republicans were not ready to give up their hopes of extracting some changes to Obamacare, suggesting a possible delay in the law's implementation. It's something the GOP has sought before, but Cole said the difficulties experienced during the rollout of the law, which began last week, might make it more likely. He also mentioned the law's tax on medical devices, which the Senate has already voted once to repeal.

President Barack Obama has been adamant that he will not negotiate over anything while the government is shut down and the debt limit is held hostage. The sides would have to figure out some sort of agreement to get past that obstacle.

"If [the president] signals back that he's willing to sign a short-term deal and sit down and negotiate, I think we'd start moving immediately," Cole said. "I don't know why you couldn't have a short-term debt ceiling secured this weekend or very early next week." That would be followed by quickly opening the government, he said.

What's clear to just about everyone now, at this eleventh hour, is that House Republicans are scrambling to find agreement among themselves on a way to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling while saving face. They need to find something to point to -- more spending cuts, entitlement reforms, anything -- that shows they've forced concessions out of Democrats as part of a final deal. And they need to do it fast, given how quickly their party's popularity is plummeting. One new poll suggests so many Americans blame Republicans for the shutdown that they may lose control of the House over it.

Given past fits and starts in negotiations between House Republicans and the White House, some observers have already turned their attention to the Senate, where lawmakers in both parties appear ready for a resolution. One senior Senate Democratic aide told The Huffington Post that Senate Democrats and Republicans have been "quietly talking about potential agreements,” and the one thing they all agree on "is that there is little appetite for a deal on the debt limit that leaves the government shuttered."

Senate talks, both internally and with the administration, escalated Friday as Obama sat down with Senate Republicans for more than an hour and a half at the White House. Senators filing back into the Capitol said the meeting had been constructive but that it was mostly a high-level conversation on entitlement and tax reform.

Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters afterward that a lot of the discussion centered around a broader deal on deficit reduction and how to replace the cuts brought on by sequestration.

One idea floated briefly in the meeting was a proposal from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Her plan would fund the government, but also repeal the medical device tax imposed under Obamacare and give federal agencies flexibility in managing the across-the-board cuts caused last spring by sequestration. Collins first proposed her idea last week and other moderate Republicans have endorsed it, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

Collins told reporters that Obama had said her proposal was “constructive,” but she said she didn’t want to give the impression that he endorsed it.

"He described it as having elements that could be worked on,” she said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Obama "wasn't dismissive" of Collins' plan, but that he was "very reluctant to commit to anything, because he has to work with House Republicans."

McCain said while he hoped the next step would come from Republicans in the lower chamber, it wasn't clear "how quickly the House can act."

Indeed, if House Republicans don’t move fast to cut a deal with themselves that the White House can support, the Senate appears ready to step in and take over -- and leave the House to make do with a plan everyone else is behind. McCain has already suggested that that may be the real endgame.

"I think the Senate also wants to have their proposal, as we discussed with the president," McCain said, referring to the Collins plan. "He showed a willingness to negotiate on a package that we could agree on that would be predicated, as he has said, that we remove the government shutdown."

But Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pushed back on the idea that Senate Republicans might act first.

"I think we're all waiting to see what happens with the negotiations that began last night after the House Republicans met with the president," Portman said.

Graham's response was a lot more terse when he was asked what happens next.

"The House does something," he said.

UPDATE: 5:45 p.m. -- A bipartisan group of 10 senators -- five on each side -- are crafting a compromise that funds the government through March, lifts the debt ceiling through June, eases sequestration, and gently tinkers with Obamacare by delaying the medical device tax by two years, according to a source familiar with the outlines of the possible bargain. The tax cut would be paid for by what's known as "pension smoothing," an idea advocated by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that raises money in the early years of the new policy.

If the Senate can agree to an arrangement along these lines, there would be intense pressure on Boehner to accept it and let it pass with Democratic and Republican votes.



2013 Government Shutdown