Democrats Push for GOP Concessions as Debt-Limit Negotiations Continue

The weekend was not long enough to get the job done

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Senate majority leader Harry Reid in Washington on Oct. 13, 2013

The weekend was not long enough to get the job done.

While the Democrats and Republicans are much closer to an agreement to reopen the government and continue government borrowing than they were two weeks ago, there is still no certainty that President Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid can broker a deal with Republicans in the House and Senate before the next major deadline later this week.

On Thursday, the U.S. will run out of money to pay its debt obligations and continue the vital operations of government for the first time ever, unless Congress comes to a compromise on raising the legal limit on the amount of money the country can borrow. That compromise will likely also open the “nonessential” parts of government, which have been shuttered since Oct. 1, under a separate partial government shutdown.

Reid called Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell on Sunday afternoon, but serious differences remain in their approach to raise the debt ceiling and open the government. McConnell believes the current funding levels set by sequestration should stay in place, which would cut $21 billion in mid-January from the $986 billion budget. Reid prefers to extend sequester funding only through mid-November. Senate Democrats, led by Budget Committee chairwoman Patty Murray — the Democrat from Washington — hope the short-term extension will allow long-term budget negotiations where they seek $1.058 trillion for 2014.

McConnell embraced a plan by Senator Susan Collins — the Republican from Maine — on Sunday, which would raise the debt limit through January and fund the government through the end of March, while delaying for two years Obamacare’s medical-device tax and require income verification in order to qualify for Obamacare subsidies. The plan is a far cry from what House Republicans asked for two weeks ago — which would have kept the government running at the same level, but also defund for a year the entire Affordable Care Act.

With polls showing steeper declines for Republicans, who kicked off the current brinkmanship by refusing to fund the government, Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House continue to believe they have a clear advantage as the negotiations enter the final days before the debt-limit deadline. Most Senate Democrats and many rank-and-file House Republicans rejected the Collins plan on Saturday.

“There is a bipartisan plan in place that has the support of Democrat and Republican Senators,” wrote McConnell in a public statement released on Sunday afternoon. “It would reopen the government, prevent a default, provide the opportunity for additional budget negotiations around Washington’s long-term debt, and maintain the commitment that Congress made to reduce Washington spending through the Budget Control Act — the law of the land. It does all this while maintaining our commitments to reduce spending, cutting an Obamacare tax and improving antifraud provisions in the law. It’s time for Democrat leaders to take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

Five of the Senate Democrats most likely to support the Collins plan — Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — as well as independent Maine Senator Angus King, countered McConnell’s charge. “We have been involved in productive, bipartisan discussions with Senator Collins and other Republican Senators, but we do not support the proposal in its current form,” they wrote in a public statement. “There are negotiations, but there is no agreement.”

While the House leadership is in close contact with McConnell’s office, it is unclear what Speaker John Boehner thinks of the Collins plan. “I believe the Senate majority leader rejected Senator Collins’ plan yesterday,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel wrote in an e-mail to TIME. “So that is moot.”

During the debt-ceiling negotiations of 2011 and the fiscal-cliff negotiations of 2012, Vice President Joe Biden and McConnell were the main players in brokering the deal. This weekend, McConnell and Reid finally began negotiations while Biden left town for Camp David. “Maybe we need to get Joe Biden out of the witness-protection program,” Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona quipped on CBS’s Face the Nation. “I hope the President will become engaged,” he added. President Obama welcomed both the House and Senate Republican conferences to the White House this week.

Reid has expressed concern about Biden’s involvement in the current round of negotiations because he believes Biden gave up too much in the 2011 and 2012 battles. Biden’s absence, and Reid’s unwavering position over the past two weeks, implies that the Democrats won’t yield much in the final negotiations. Reid, for his part, is perfectly happy filling the role as the lead Democrat negotiator.

“I’m optimistic about the prospects for a positive conclusion to the issues before this country today,” said Reid on the Senate floor on Sunday.