Reid/McConnell Talks Stalemated As Democrats Push For Sequester Changes

Talks between the two Senate leaders haven't exactly gone so well.

Harry Reid Mitch McConnell

As I noted yesterday afternoon, the next best hope for a resolution of the continuing government shutdown/debt ceiling crises appeared to lie in negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Almost as quickly as they started, though, those talks appear to be deadlocked over a completely new issue, the sequestration cuts that were a part of the Budget Control Act of 2011:

Talks on ending the government shutdown and preventing default have once again deadlocked, but this time it is Democrats who are demanding changes to current law as a condition for ending the impasse.

With the two sides now negotiating to extend government funding until at least January 31, Democrats are now insisting on spending increases — they want to end most of the cuts put in place as part of the so-called sequester. Democrats are still willing to accept a short-term deal to reopen the government at sequester spending levels (the Senate, of course, passed a 6-week extension on those terms), but now that talks are centered on funding the government into 2014, they are insisting on undoing some of sequester cuts. To Republicans, this is a non-starter, unless the sequester spending cuts are replaced with cuts to entitlement programs — and that is a non-starter for Democrats.

The impasse makes it more likely there will be no agreement when markets reopen Monday morning. If an agreement is not soon reached, it may be impossible to pass anything before October 17, the day the Treasury Department says the government risks default if Congress does not extend the government’s ability to borrow money.

Talks in the Senate began on an optimistic note Saturday when Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell — two men who have been barely on speaking terms over the past several weeks — took the lead on crafting a deal that would reopen the government and extend the nation’s ability to borrow money until at least January 31. Republican leaders, beaten and battered in the polls and eager to end an impasse of their own creation, had dropped almost all their demands. Major changes to Obamacare, the Republican demand that started the mess in the first place, are now off the table.

Going into talks with Reid, McConnell was already preparing to deal with a backlash from tea party Republicans. In an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper, McConnell said it was time for a “come together” moment with Democrats to prevent default and get the government reopened.

“As much as I would rather have a Republican president and would rather be the majority leader of the Senate, I am willing to work with the government we have — not the one I wish we had,” McConnell told the newspaper.

Sam Stein at The Huffington Post has reports that McConnell is standing firm:

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are holding the line against Democratic demands for a framework to alleviate the across-the-board spending cuts established by sequestration as part of any deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.

In talks between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the main sticking point is now where to establish funding levels for the federal government and for how long. The Republican offer made on Friday — to set spending at sequestration levels of $988 billion for the next six months — was rejected by Reid and others on Saturday on the grounds that it was too favorable to the GOP position and discouraged future negotiations.

By Sunday morning, little notable progress toward a resolution had been made. McConnell, according to sources, was adamant that the spending cuts of sequestration be maintained in any final arrangement.

“Sen. McConnell will defend the commitment Congress made on spending reductions; he’ll defend the law that Sen. Reid voted for and the president signed — and subsequently bragged about in his campaign,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. “As I recall, Sen. Reid voted for, and President Obama signed the Budget Control Act [which established sequestration]. They may not like that the supercommittee didn’t act and we’re left with sequester, but under their own rhetoric, it’s ‘the law of the land.'”

Some of McConnell’s top deputies that echoed sentiment on the Sunday talk shows. “The president and leaders of Congress need to take the responsibility of dealing with the underlying problem and keep the budget caps in place,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told “Meet The Press.” “My gosh, we just put them in place two years ago.”

“If you break the spending caps, you’re not going to get any Republicans in the Senate,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.) said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Other Senate Republicans have echoed these comments, making it clear that a proposal that tries to undo the sequester cuts would be a complete non-starter. More importantly, though, its rather obvious that any Senate deal that tried to do this would be dead on arrival in the House. Indeed, it’s doubtful that Speaker Boehner and his deputies would be able to bring such a bill to the House floor because of the massive opposition it would face even from House Republicans who might be inclined to accept a lesser deal to get the debt ceiling and the shutdown behind them. As George Will put it this morning, trying to break the sequester would be something that would unite all Republicans on Capitol Hill just at the time when there appear to be some fractures development inside both caucuses that could, under the right circumstances, result in enough votes to get a deal passed by both the House and the Senate in time to avert the October 17th debt ceiling deadline.

Bringing sequestration cuts into this discussion at what is almost literally the last minute seems like a completely bizarre move coming from the same party that has spent the last three weeks saying that they had already compromised by agreeing to go forward on the sequestration cuts rather than arguing over budget numbers that differed by some $80 billion (for purposes of the CR). To a large degree, Democrats have had the high ground here because they’ve been able to argue that they had already agreed to compromise on the budget by not seeking to undo the sequestration cuts as the Senate’s budget would have done. Now, they’re coming in at the last minute trying to use the negotiations to bring sequestration back into the debate. And they’re doing so despite the fact that it’s rather obvious that Republicans, especially Republicans in the House, are unlikely to agree to anything that touches the sequestration cuts just as Democrats are unlikely to agree to anything that touches the Affordable Care Act. To the extent this is an example of Democrats trying to squeeze concessions out of Republicans, it’s an understandable play. To the extent that they’re trying to move close to a deal, this isn’t a good development. Given the fact that the amount of time we have left to make a deal is shrinking rapidly, this doesn’t strike me as a positive development.

Reid and McConnell are apparently still talking, so I suppose that’s a good sign, but unless things become far more productive very quickly it’s starting to look less and less likely that we’ll see a deal before midnight on Thursday.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Deficit and Debt, US Politics, , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    So apparently “negotiate” means discuss only what Republicans want to discuss.
    That said; This will be over soon.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    “Sen. McConnell will defend the commitment Congress made on spending reductions; he’ll defend the law that Sen. Reid voted for and the president signed — and subsequently bragged about in his campaign,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. “As I recall, Sen. Reid voted for, and President Obama signed the Budget Control Act [which established sequestration]. They may not like that the supercommittee didn’t act and we’re left with sequester, but under their own rhetoric, it’s ‘the law of the land.’

    Coming from a party leader that seeks to nullify ACA by any means necessary, including countenancing default, that is real chutzpah. There will be no “Arab Spring” with this Republican Party; They clearly are willing to go to default if they don’t get concessions, a reward of some kind, for their well-planned idiocy.

  3. Mark Ivey says:

    ” Major changes to Obamacare, the Republican demand that started the mess in the first place, are now off the table.”
    ——————————

    WooT

  4. Scott O says:

    Which Democrats? How many?

  5. anjin-san says:

    Shorter GOP – “We lost the White House twice, We lost on Obamacare, we lost on the shutdown. Here are our demands.”

  6. Tony W says:

    Negotiating away “Obama’s Sequester” is a non-starter for the Republicans. Who’s sequester is that again?

  7. Hal 10000 says:

    Now that it’s the Democrats putting out conditions for a clean CR/DL deal, prepare for everyone’s opinions on the matter to reverse.

  8. David M says:

    @Hal 10000:
    That’s not entirely accurate. The Dems never wanted the sequester cuts for all of FY2014, which is why the House refused to negotiate the budget with the Senate. The GOP is still trying to lock in the cuts for a longer period of time.

    Is there any evidence yet that the GOP will accept a clean 6 week CR and raise the debt ceiling until 2015? I’ll start objecting to the Dems behavior when they reject that deal.

  9. DrDaveT says:

    @Hal 10000:
    If by ‘reverse’ you mean hold both sides to the same standard, then yes — mine just reversed. I have been relentlessly critical of the Republicans for trying to use the shutdown and debt ceiling to force negotiations over battles they had already lost. I will be just as critical of the Democrats for suddenly bringing new demands to the table in exchange for an end to the shutdown and a raise to the debt ceiling.

    Get the government running again and push the prospect of default far enough out to keep it out of other politicking. Do _only_ that. Then you can get back to your regularly scheduled failure to govern.

  10. Gustopher says:

    Since the main problem has been the Republicans creating crises to extract concessions, it has to do more than just not work, it has to backfire and hurt them.

    No need for a pound of flesh, but at least a few ounces. Make them eager top go back to the days when they could get a small token of appreciation for doing their jobs and keeping the government going.

  11. David M says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I believe the GOP in the House offered a very small debt ceiling increase, and the GOP in the Senate offered a larger increase, but paired it with some lower spending levels. The Dems will accept the sequester spending levels they don’t like while they negotiate the FY2014 spending levels, but they aren’t going to give them to the GOP in return for them reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling.

  12. David M says:

    As a public service reminder, the GOP gets nothing for raising the debt ceiling or re-opening the government. They are still making demands and offering those in return, so it’s obvious why the negotiations aren’t going anywhere.

  13. superdestroyer says:

    @David M:

    If the Democrats did not want the Sequester cuts, then why does every Democrat include the decrease of the budget deficits from FY2012 to FY2013 in their talking points. If the Democrats did not want sequesters, then the decrease in the budget deficits should been seen as a bad thing instead of a good thing.

    Once again, Reid is demanding complete victory for the Democrats as a condition for ending the government shutdown.

  14. David M says:

    @superdestroyer:

    The Democrats initial offer was to extend the sequester cuts for 6 weeks while working out the entire FY2014 budget. For the entire FY2014 budget they were going to try and negotiate changes to the sequester spending levels with the GOP. The GOP refused to negotiate and here we are, where any negotiation is seen as a complete victory for the Democrats.

  15. Hal 10000 says:

    @David M:

    It’s a continuing resolution, which means it should continue at FY 2013 levels. The initial offer from the Democrats for the continuing resolution included sequestration.

  16. David M says:

    @Hal 10000:

    6 weeks vs 6 months. It’s not a trivial difference.

  17. al-Ameda says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Once again, Reid is demanding complete victory for the Democrats as a condition for ending the government shutdown.

    Actually, what Reid is demanding is that we not have to revisit this kind of Republican idiocy again in 4, 6, 8, or 12 weeks. A short term extension will bring us right back to this Republican-preferred point in short order. Clearly Republicans are still locked in on using this to get Obama to capitulate to their inflexibie agenda.

  18. Kari Q says:

    Now that Democrats actually have demands it means we can have negotiations in which each side is forced to give up what it originally tried to accomplish and settle on only those things they can agree on: Reopening the government, increasing the debt limit, and entering into budget negotiations for the upcoming year.

    I’m feeling oddly hopeful that those three things will happen.

  19. superdestroyer says:

    @Kari Q:

    I suspect that negotiatiions are pointless. Any deal that extends pass Jan, 2015 is pointless. The only thing that Congress can affect is what the spending levels are in 2014, what new entitlements start in fy14, and how big the deficit will be in 2014. The idea that any agreement made in the next few weeks will survive past Jan 2015 is laughable. Congress has never made a deal with itself that it kept and the Democrats are not about to start now.