Does Sen. Susan Collins have the best idea for ending the Washington mess?

House and Senate met Saturday, looking for ways to solve the budget-and-debt debacle. House members went home, but Senate leaders from both parties kept talking.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is followed by reporters as she leaves a meeting of Senate Republicans regarding the government shutdown and debt ceiling on Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday.

As the work week ended for most Americans and the three-day weekend began, it looked like the main actors in Washington’s budget-and-debt debacle were getting somewhere – at least talking to rather than at each other.

But by the end of the day Saturday, the principals had slumped back into their earlier positions, accusing each other of failure to seriously negotiate an end to the government shutdown while avoiding what most economists and business leaders say would be disastrous default on the US debt just five days from now.

Speaker John Boehner sent House members home until next week.

In the Senate, Democrats couldn’t generate the 60 votes necessary to bring Majority Leader Harry Reid’s proposal to the floor. That would have extended the debt ceiling through 2014. It failed on a party line vote.

For a while, it looked like a bipartisan proposal by Sen. Susan Collins, the moderate Republican from Maine, might be going somewhere. That included a six-month stopgap funding bill through March and a debt ceiling increase through January.

Regarding the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), the Collins proposal also would delay for two years a tax on medical devices, and it included stronger income verification for those deemed eligible for insurance subsidies under the new law.

Democrats saw that as merely delaying the debt ceiling fight for a few months, and they rejected it.

But if nothing else, the Collins proposal helped launch what calls “the Harry and Mitch show.”

That’s the continuing discussions between Sen. Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The two Senate bulls – together with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) – met Saturday morning, and it looks like this important conversation will continue through a rare Senate session Sunday.

As Politico describes them, Reid and McConnell are “two shrewd tacticians who have a long, complicated, and contentious personal and political history with each other.”

But they’ve worked together in the past Reid noted at a press conference Saturday, and they could again.

“Sen. McConnell and I have been in this body a long time, we’ve done things for a long time together,” he said. “I know him, he knows me. We don’t agree on everything, that’s as you know probably an understatement.”

“But we were whips together, a long time ago we have fond memories of our days together when others could take the responsibility we now have to take,” Reid said. “We did some good things together, we revamped government together as whips. This is what legislating is all about.”

We’ll see if the two Senate veterans can legislate together again.

Meanwhile, hardcore conservatives – including the tea party – look like they’re being pushed to the sidelines.

Sen. Ted Cruz got wild cheers and a standing ovation at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, a three-day gathering of socially conservative activists. But killing Obamacare – Cruz’s prime goal – is not the political centerpiece it once was, at least for most Republican lawmakers dealing with their Democratic counterparts and the White House.

In a fund-raising e-mail Saturday, the Tea Party Express sounded shrill when it warned: “Republicans poised to concede to President Obama.”

“Are you like us and wondering where the fight against Obamacare went?” the e-mail asks. “What happened to the House Republicans' resolve to defeat the disastrous government-run healthcare system?”
“The whole reason the Senate refused to vote on the House [continuing resolution] and subsequently allowed the government to shut down was because the CR delayed Obamacare for a year,” the e-mail reads. “Now, the only thing that we are hearing in negotiations is talk about the debt ceiling and spending levels and nothing about Obamacare. Furthermore, we are worried that they are losing their resolve and caving to the demands of Harry Reid and the Obama Administration.”

What happened Saturday – or rather, did not happen – did not look like caving on anybody’s part.

Depending on your point of view, that’s either standing on principle or being pig-headed.

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