House GOP in flux as Senate hammers out fiscal deal
House Republicans were caught in a state of flux on Tuesday as a group of senators worked to craft a bipartisan proposal to end the federal government shutdown and avert a default on the national debt.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reacted sharply to a newly circulated House GOP measure, saying, "we felt blindsided by the news from the House." Reid called it a "blatant attack on bipartisanship," which he vowed "can't pass the Senate and won't pass the Senate."
Senate leaders continued working to hammer out the final details of a deal to raise the debt ceiling and re-open a closed federal government, while Republicans discussed their counterproposal, which was more narrowly tailored to please conservatives. It wasn't clear whether the Senate measure was ready, either.
"We're encouraged by the progress that we've seen in the Senate, but we're far from a deal at this point," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.
As the Senate worked on its proposal, Republicans in the House -- then retreated from -- a proposal shortly after details were leaked during a closed-door meeting of lawmakers.
"There are a lot of opinions about what direction to go," House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio told reporters at the Capitol after an unusually long meeting with fellow Republicans. "There have been no decisions about what exactly we will do."
The speaker's words were somewhat stunning given the manner in which Republican aides circulated the details of a GOP proposal to tackle the shutdown and debt limit during the meeting, suggesting the House would move forward on the alternative as soon as Tuesday. The top Senate Democrat said he was "blindsided" by the developments.
Democrats were quick to seize on the theatrics, accusing Republicans of "sabotaging a good faith, bi-partisan effort," in the words of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
According to Republican sources, the House bill had called for extending government spending through Jan. 15 and the debt limit until Feb. 7 -- about the same length of time as the Senate's proposal. The House bill would also delay the medical device tax in "Obamacare" for two years and strip members of Congress (not staffers) of subsidies to purchase insurance under the Affordable Care Act's exchanges, among other provisions -- like stripping the Treasury Department of the ability to use "extraordinary measures" to avert default before future debt limit deadlines.
The White House was sharply critical of the proposal, with spokeswoman Amy Brundage calling the GOP plan "a partisan attempt to appease a small group of Tea Party Republicans who forced the government shutdown in the first place."
Negotiations over a compromise to end the protracted government shutdown and avert default have centered in the Senate over the past few days, as Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., work to hammer out the final details.
"I'm confident we'll be able to reach a comprehensive agreement this week," Reid said Tuesday morning on the Senate floor, noting that negotiations had continued.
Reflecting the high degree of fluidity on Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama had summoned party leaders from both the House and Senate to the White House on Monday afternoon, only to postpone that meeting. The decision to delay the gathering was interpreted as a positive sign that Senate negotiations were progressing.
Amid the Republican disarray in the House, Obama summoned top House Democrats to the White House on Tuesday afternoon, where he and Vice President Joe Biden were expected to discuss strategy.
The confusion among House Republican lawmakers is consistent with past instances instances when conservatives have balked at Senate legislation to end some sort of fiscal standoff as a deadline rapidly approaches. In almost every single one of those showdowns, the House's efforts have fallen flat with Democrats, and the chamber eventually accedes to the Senate plan.
Time is running short, though, for Congress to act. The Treasury Department has said that Congress must extend the government's borrowing authority to meet existing obligations by Thursday, or risk an economically perilous default. Moreover, the government shutdown has now entered its third week, placing hundreds of thousands of federal workers onto furlough without pay and affecting millions more Americans who use government services.
Tuesday's dramatic developments come amid a rising tide of public disapproval toward congressional Republicans, reflected in a slew of polls released over the past week. Though congressional Democrats and Obama haven't received especially high marks for their handling of the shutdown and debt limit standoff, polls suggest more voters are inclined to place blame with Republicans for the crisis.
In that respect, the tentative House Republican plan is a remarkable concession in its own regard, even though it's unlikely to win over Senate Democrats and Obama.
Just three weeks ago, Republicans were insistent on conditioning the government's finances for just a few months on defunding or delaying Obamacare, a hard-line stance which contributed to the shutdown in the first place. The measures said to be attached to the new House proposal represent a remarkably a scaled-back wish list for Republicans, reflecting the degree to which the party has been chastened during the past few weeks.