Last-Minute Senate Deal To End Crises Faces Crucial Test

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) walk from McConnell's office to the Senate Chamber on October 14, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The halls of the Hill were mostly quiet Monday, except for the space outside the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the two men who all agree now hold the promise of restarting a broken governing process in Washington.

By day’s end, after hours of negotiations and meetings, the outlines of the Reid-McConnell compromise were clear, though it was less certain whether the plan would pass both houses of Congress. The deal would end the current government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling, pushing off the next fiscal fight to the beginning of next year. A Senate Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations confirmed that the latest dates discussed were, respectively, January 15, when a government shutdown could happen again absent another deal, and February 7, when the debt limit will have to be raised again. In the meantime, federal funding would continue at current levels.

The aide said it was “likely” that a provision will be included that verifies the income of those seeking an Obamacare subsidy. In return, the Democrats are pushing for a delay until 2015 of an Obamacare reinsurance tax that is opposed by unions.

“It looks like it’s moving towards something that we can pass in the United States Senate,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has voted to defund Obamacare. Grassley said that “most” Senate Republicans believe “the thing that can’t be moved” is the current, post-sequester level of government spending.

The House Republican conference will likely discuss the outlines of the Senate negotiations in its 9 a.m. meeting Tuesday, but the framework will certainly not attract the 80 or so very conservative Republicans that led the defund Obamacare movement. For other contentious votes in the House this year, like the $50 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill, around 50 Republicans joined a vast majority of Democrats to enact passage. Speaker Boehner, who controls the House floor, has not signalled whether or not he will allow such a scenario again, but aides to Boehner said during the day that he was in close consultation with McConnell.

“When you’re giving 98, 99 percent of Obamacare I don’t see how it would ever pass over here,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas), a strong advocate for defunding the Affordable Care Act. The union provision “makes Obamacare even more unfair,” added Huelskamp.

“I would probably support it,” said Rep. Peter King (R-Ny.), a moderate who supported the aforementioned Sandy bill. “I think we have to make this work. For someone to say this should be in it, or that should be in it, I think we’ve passed that stage by now.”

Under Senate rules, it is impossible to vote on a bill that would reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling by Thursday unless every senator decides to agree to waive aspects of the usual procedure, a likely prospect. “I don’t think my team would advise running time. Then all you are doing is prolonging the shut down,” said Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who supported Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s 21-hour speak-a-thon five days before the government shut down. “It’s a bad message.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also said he would not block a vote on the proposal even if he did not support it. “I think we need to get an agreement and open the government back up,” he said.

The House Republican leadership has complained that the Senate is trying to force them from the bargaining table, even though its members admit the lower chamber is not the proper venue for last-minute negotiations. “Realistically, the House has never in its history, in 200 years, been able to jam the Senate on anything,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). “It’s because the House is the passion branch and the Senate is the…” At this point, Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.), sitting nearby, finished his thought: “thoughtful, pensive, cerebral branch.” Radel then roared with laughter.

In recent weeks, Republicans have found themselves taking the brunt of the opposition in the polls. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday found that 74% of American disapproved of the way Republicans were handling the budget crises, compared with 53% who disapprove of President Obama’s work on the budget and 61% who disapprove of Democrats handling of the crises. But Congressional experts say it is too soon to tell how these numbers will effect the 2014 elections. “Members of the media have said that the 2014 election will come down to the I.R.S. and Lois Lerner, NSA and Edward Snowden, and Syria,” said David Wasserman, the House editor of the Cook Political Report. While the the politics of the shutdown are “toxic and self-destructive for the Republican Party broadly,” Wasserman says it’s “far too early” to say what the consequences will be.

“Public memory can be short,” agrees Larry Sabato, Director of the Virginia Center for Politics. “For voters who do remember, they might well punish Republicans more, especially some of the 17 GOP House members that represent districts won by Obama in 2012.”

For Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), that backlash in the House might seem well-deserved.

“We’ve basically blown the last two months with some of our members and a lot of the House focused on a shiny object that was never going to happen,” said Corker. “So we find ourselves four days from a debt ceiling, and all of sudden, 72 hours ago, we began talking about the right subject, which is spending, entitlement reform, and those kinds of things.”