Fiscal talks pick up, but route to end government shutdown still murky

The House may vote to raise the debt limit as soon as this weekend, but that doesn’t guarantee reciprocal action in the Senate. Meanwhile, the government shutdown is putting a damper on already-weak economic growth.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican senators, from left, Ted Cruz of Texas, John McCain of Arizona, David Vitter of Louisiana, and Richard Shelby of Alabama, walk in the rain back to their bus at the North Portico of the White House after meeting with President Barack Obama over the government shutdown and debt ceiling on Friday.

After days of congressional inaction on a pair of urgent fiscal deadlines, this week draws toward a close on a positive note: Washington politicians are talking more often, more substantively, and more respectfully than they had been.

The sobering follow-up: Despite progress, the fiscal quagmire may linger for a while.

That’s the case even though the House could vote as soon as this weekend on a bill addressing one of those fiscal deadlines: raising the government’s debt limit after the current borrowing cap is reached around Oct. 17.

As America has already seen in recent days, passage of a bill by the Republican-led House is no guarantee of reciprocal action in the Senate or a signature by President Obama.

Still, both sides are seeking possible paths forward to raise the debt limit and to address the other deadline: ending an 11-day-old partial shutdown of the government, which began with the failure of Congress to pass a budget for the new fiscal year.

Mr. Obama met with Senate Republicans Friday. After all the recent clashing in Washington, that bears repeating: The Democratic president talked for more than an hour with a group of living, breathing Republican lawmakers. And he met with House Republicans the previous evening.

"There have been constructive talks" between the parties, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday afternoon.

What’s more, Republicans didn’t rip into their rival in the Oval Office afterward.

“It is my hope that if both sides give a little, both sides can walk away [with an agreement of which] we can all be proud,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R) of Mississippi said at a hearing Friday focused on the shutdown’s negative effects on the US economy. He said it seems that both sides are “getting closer” to a negotiation process.

Mr. Carney also noted that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had agreed Friday that “everybody should keep talking,” and Carney called this a “marked difference” from the political climate that had prevailed in recent days.

Key details of the talks haven’t become publicly known. But it appears likely that lawmakers will work over the weekend in an effort to reach a deal.

According to some news reports, House Republicans have offered to pass legislation to extend the nation’s borrowing capability for a short period, such as six weeks. That would take one big concern off the table and allow the two sides to focus next on ending the federal shutdown.

Many Republicans now hope the two sides can link near-term budget progress to some deal that would steer long-term federal spending downward – by reining in future entitlement costs that threaten to make federal deficits unsustainable.

This potential way forward is tricky for both parties. It would leave on the sidelines a top goal of many Republicans – to delay or dismantle Obama’s health-care reform law.

Democrats, meanwhile, complain about Republican efforts to intertwine the fiscal deadlines with other bargaining. They say basic obligations of Congress like funding the government and allowing the Treasury to pay bills shouldn’t be held hostage to partisan budget talks.

Such Democratic complaints have prompted the press to ask: So is the president now negotiating with Republicans or not?

At the Friday press briefing, Carney gave a bit of fodder for a yes answer, while also saying that Obama’s basic position remains that there should be “no ransom” for raising the debt limit.

“The American people cannot pay a ransom in return for Congress doing its job,” Carney said. But he also emphasized that the two parties are talking, including at the White House.

“You can use any word you want to describe it; that's the beauty of the free press,” Carney said. He also said, “The president knows full well that he’s not going to get everything he wants.”

Carney cautioned against legislation that extends borrowing authority for only six weeks. That, he said, would simply revive the risk of default right before the year’s big season for retail shopping.

Both parties face some practical pressure to move.

The shutdown is putting a damper on already-weak economic growth. The Oct. 17 debt-limit deadline is an even bigger economic risk. (The danger is that an effective default by the Treasury could push up interest rates, damage America’s credit rating, and shrink stock-market values, among other things.)

Polls show that neither party is winning popularity points right now. Public ratings of Congress are essentially at record lows, and although Republicans are viewed as most to blame for the fiscal impasse, Obama’s approval rating has sagged since August. A majority now voice disapproval of the president, according to Gallup surveys.

A new Gallup survey also finds that, for all the partisan gridlock now roiling the nation, the share of Americans who want the same political party to run both the White House and Congress is at just 25 percent. That’s a record low in a dozen years of polling on that issue.

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