WASHINGTON -- The ghost of failed grand bargains past emerged on Wednesday, only to be pushed back into the grave by lawmakers trying to negotiate an end to the government shutdown and avert a default.
As the four top lawmakers in Congress met with President Barack Obama at the White House, reports began filtering in that the sides would discuss some sort of larger deal to end the impasse -- one that resembled the negotiations that had started and stalled in 2011 and 2012. By the time those lawmakers emerged from the meeting 1 1/2 hours later, such a deal seemed far off.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), first to the microphones outside the West Wing, declared that Obama "will not negotiate."
"We've got divided government: Democrats control the White House and the Senate. Republicans control the House," Boehner said. "We have sent four different proposals, but our Democrat colleagues in the Senate have rejected all of them."
It was a somber, depressing tone that led several reporters to wonder why it took 90 minutes to reach that conclusion. The answer, it seemed, was that Boehner had tried to explore the viability of a big deal rather than a short-term continuing resolution and a subsequent debt-limit hike. Those conversations did not go far.
"Boehner raised the idea" that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) "could forge a grand bargain," said a Democratic source familiar with the meeting, which staff was prohibited from attending. Other attendees scoffed, the source added, having "heard that song and dance too many times before."
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, told The Huffington Post, "What was said publicly summed it up."
A Republican source familiar with the meeting said there was a discussion of whether conferees from the House and Senate would be appointed to help craft a budget -– not a grand bargain -– with Boehner pushing for direct talks between Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) That position is more than a little ironic. Murray moved Wednesday on the Senate floor to start a conference committee on the budget. Republicans objected, as they have 18 times before.
Whether a grand bargain is on the table, off the table, alive or dead on some floor in the West Wing is unclear. It may be that lawmakers will pursue the idea in private, even if they publicly dismiss its viability.
Republicans' appetite for a grand solution seemed greater than Democrats'. Two other Democratic sources familiar with the White House meeting independently noted Obama's firmness in the discussion, stressing that he would negotiate only outside the context of a debt limit or a government shutdown deal. In the past, the president has been the one in the room most willing to explore negotiations.
Obama's hardness may be because of the demands Republicans are floating. The list of items that would be pursued by the House GOP as part of any big deal would have few Democratic fans.
"Per sources, entitlement reforms, such as chained CPI, an elimination of the medical-device tax, and delays to parts of Obamacare are all on the table as trades for delaying aspects of sequestration and extending the debt limit," the National Review's Robert Costa reported.
"Items frequently mentioned for inclusion in such a compromise include means-testing Medicare, chained consumer price index, raising the retirement age and comprehensive tax reform. Many Republicans would find it hard to reject a package that rewrites the Tax Code, enacts some entitlement reform and repeals Obamacare’s medical device tax," reported Politico.
Notably quiet in this discussion was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). He has been the one to pull a deal from the pits of defeat during past standoffs. But he faces a primary election challenge back home and has been notably absent from current talks. One of the Democratic sources said Vice President Joseph Biden sought McConnell out during Wednesday's meeting for reasons that weren't immediately clear.
Another of the sources said McConnell left without saying goodbye, leaving Reid to wonder where he had gone. But Don Stewart, McConnell's spokesman, was quick to shoot that down, and did so on the record.
"Unlike whatever aide slipped that to you," Stewart said, "I’ll go on the record with this: That’s not accurate."
With reporting By Ryan Grim