The Senate Tries to Break the Shutdown Stalemate
Policy + Politics

The Senate Tries to Break the Shutdown Stalemate

REUTERS/Gary Cameron

With House Republicans seemingly spinning their wheels on ideas for ending the government shutdown and avoiding a first-ever default, Senate Democrats and a few Republicans declared on Tuesday that it was time for the upper chamber to take the lead.

Of course, this was brave talk from the Senate. Over the past few weeks, it has been powerless to shape the course of events and has done little more than play political ping pong with the House on short-term spending measures.


But a disparate group of senators – from Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Arizona’s John McCain – insisted it was time for them to try to end the crisis.

“This is our moment, this is our chance to bring the nation back from the precipice,” Durbin said in a floor speech. “Waiting for the House of Representatives to save us is beneath the United States Senate.”   

McConnell took to the floor to urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to pursue a compromise with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to end the crisis, after weeks of bickering between the two leaders.

“The American people have given us divided government,” he told his colleagues. “And when you have divided government, it means you have to talk to each other  . . . and I think we’re well past that time.”

John McCain, his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, delivered an emotional speech noting that the government shutdown has become so bad that even the families of deceased members of the military are being denied death benefits.

McCain declared that the Republicans have failed in their attempt to use the government shutdown to derail or defund Obamacare, and said that at some point they will have to relent and pass a spending measure to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling to prevent the Treasury from defaulting on its debt –which could be as early as Oct. 17.

“So why don’t we do this sooner rather than later?” McCain asked. “And why doesn’t the Senate lead? I have great respect for the other side of the Capitol. But I understand the contradictions that are there and the difficulties that the speaker has [in controlling his conference], and I am in great sympathy here.”

The emotional floor speeches followed closed-door meetings of the two parties, as Senate Democrats prepare to unveil a measure to extend the Treasury’s borrowing authority for up to another year without any of the conditions being sought by House Republicans – including changes to the Affordable Care Act and entitlement savings to reduce the long-term debt.

The $1 trillion increase to the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling would largely be a symbolic display of force by Senate Democrats who not only wish to avoid blame but also the ensuing catastrophe of a default.

Senate Democrats said they also may accept a short-term debt ceiling bill, perhaps lasting only weeks, if necessary, to avoid going over the brink. With Democrats controlling 54 seats, they would need the support of six or seven Republicans to break a possible filibuster and pass the measure well before next Thursday’s deadline.


Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) predicted that his party will pick up the necessary Republican support to pass the measure and send it to the House. But he may be overly optimistic in light of the sharp divisions within the GOP between the old guard and Tea Party stalwarts such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.

“Look, you can debate whether it’s an 80 percent chance or a 40 percent chance [of default], but you can’t debate that the chance is real enough that you risk a cataclysm, a Great Depression,” Schumer told reporters. “It’s hard for me to believe that people think it’s okay not to pay our debts when we have never done it as a country before and when the vast majority of the financial experts say it’s likely or possible that this creates a cataclysm.”

But it’s unclear as to why the House would accept the Senate measure, since its members have rejected past “clean” continuing resolutions from that chamber to reopen the government. Meanwhile, Obama has rejected Republican provisions to curtail or delay his health-care law as part of a short-term government funding bill and has demanded a debt-ceiling increase without “partisan” attachments.

House GOP congressional leaders are calling for negotiations, although they have yet to explain what he wants out of the talks and why they would produce better results than the conversations over the past year.

“Listen, there’s never been a president in our history that did not negotiate over the debt limit,” Boehner said. “Never. Not once. As a matter of fact, President Obama negotiated with me over the debt limit in 2011. He also negotiated with the Blue Dog Democrats to raise the debt in ceiling in 2010. So the way to resolve this is to sit down and have a conversation to resolve our differences.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) unveiled a plan for a new “super committee” to negotiate an agreement during the Tuesday morning meeting with the House GOP conference. The new House-Senate panel would be similar in some ways to a joint congressional committee established in 2011, to try to reach agreement on $1.5 trillion of long term discretionary spending cuts. That committee ultimately disbanded without reaching agreement, which paved the way for automatic, across-the board cuts under the sequester.

The mandate for the new group would include addressing the debt limit and other fiscal concerns. Proposing a new panel is just the latest effort by Republicans to establish a framework for negotiations with the Senate and Obama. But in a sign of the pressure facing the Senate, the new super committee was quickly written off as disingenuous.

“It’s hard to know where to begin describing this sham approach,” Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense a spending watchdog, said yesterday. “Considering how unlikely any agreement would come from this process, any lawmaker appointed would be in legislative purgatory for the foreseeable future.”