Government shutdown: John McCain: 'Why doesn't the Senate lead?'
By: Jake Sherman and Burgess Everett
October 8, 2013 09:14 AM EDT
In an unusual move, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid summoned all senators to the floor on Tuesday to debate the government shutdown and looming debt ceiling deadline.
“It’s time for us, members of this august body, to stand before the American people,” Reid said.
It was an unprecedented use of the live quorum call the ability to make all members report to the chamber in order to discuss important topics. Senators then voted to retrieve the missing lawmakers — it passed 84 to 14.
The point of the full Senate meeting was clear as Reid launched into a lecture about the problems with the shutdown — now in its eighth day — telling members that it was “disgraceful” the shutdown led to the families of troops killed in the line of duty to not receive death benefits. And influential senators like Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) each said it’s time to stop waiting for the House to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.
“Waiting for the House of Representatives to save us is beneath the United States Senate,” Durbin said.
“Sooner or later, the government will resume its function. Sooner or later we will raise the debt limit. The question is how we get there,” McCain said. “Why don’t we do this sooner rather than later? Why doesn’t the Senate lead?”
Reid’s rare maneuver came during President Barack Obama’s first news conference during the shutdown.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) then took to the floor and said the Senate meeting belied Reid’s difficulties in entering discussions with House Speaker John Boehner.
“We now have divided government. We have to talk to each other,” McConnell said.
The unusual Senate scene came a week into a government shutdown, nine days until the debt ceiling is reached and as Boehner adopted a new tone, saying he isn’t “drawing any lines in the sand,” but simply wants to negotiate with President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats to end the budgetary impasses.
Boehner’s office said Obama called the speaker on Tuesday around 10:45 a.m. to reiterate that he won’t negotiate on legislation to reopen the government or lift the debt ceiling. The White House said Obama is happy to negotiate “after the threat of government shutdown and default have been removed.” Obama will answer questions from the White House briefing room at 2 p.m.
In line with Obama’s stance, Senate Democrats are pushing a plan to raise the debt ceiling without policy restrictions. Before entering a closed-door lunch, Reid said that he thought he could accrue the 60 votes needed for this legislation to clear procedural hurdles later this week — including six Republicans. Reid said later he would begin the process of considering the bill later Tuesday, possibly culminating in a critical procedural vote on Saturday.
That notion was disputed by Senate GOP leadership members John Thune (R-S.D.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who insist that a clean debt ceiling could not get 60 votes today — an equation that could change as the Oct. 17 debt ceiling deadline approaches.
“I doubt that our members are going to want to vote for a clean debt limit increase absent the discussion about what we do to reduce the debt and improve the economy,” Thune said.
After more than a month of screaming across the Capitol, Boehner (R-Ohio) Tuesday morning said there are “no boundaries” — if only Democrats would talk to him. Asked if he would lift the debt ceiling and fund the government before those talks start, Boehner said he would not engage in speculation.
“All we’re asking for is to sit down and have a conversation,” Boehner said. “There’s no reason to make it more difficult to bring people to the table. There’s no boundaries here, there’s nothing on the table, there’s nothing off the table. I’m trying to do everything I can to bring people together and have a conversation.”
It was a tone shift from last week, when Boehner bellowed that the government shut down wasn’t a “damn game.” It was an attempt to look like someone who is open-minded and willing to negotiate to head off the massive economic consequences that could come from a prolonged shutdown and debt default. But Boehner’s tone is unlikely to change the fundamental dynamics of this standoff: Democrats say Republicans must re-open government before negotiations start.
Across the Capitol, Reid was equally clear about his demands: End this crisis, and negotiations can start.
“Open the government, raise the debt ceiling and we’ll talk about anything you want to talk about,” Reid said Tuesday.
Reid’s message hasn’t changed, but that hasn’t affected Republicans, who continue to pass bills to entice Democrats to the negotiating table. This week, they’ll attempt to pass a bill to pay government workers during the shutdown, and another that would appoint a negotiating committee to deal with deficit and debt issues. The House will send those bills as one to the Senate. Democrats immediately pushed back against that idea.
“Not again, not again,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said when first told of the newest Republican plan. “Having served as a member of the so-called supercommittee, there was nothing super about it.”
Senate Democrats are also skeptical.
“Going back to the supercommittee idea that brought us sequestration but didn’t solve our big fiscal issues isn’t going to work,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.
In his Tuesday press conference, Obama questioned the need for a type of supercommittee.
“There’s already a process in placed called the budget committees that could come together right now … to make a determination of how much the government should be spending next year,” Obama said. “I don’t know why we need to set up a new committee.”
The message from House Republicans is remarkably inconsistent. Conservatives have started talking about a one-month debt ceiling hike alongside spending cuts of equal value — a plan that was received skeptically inside the House leadership.
The Senate’s Republican and Democratic conferences caucused at separate lunches off the Senate floor Tuesday to hash out raising the debt ceiling. Stuck at a stalemate with the House on reopening the government, Senate Democrats are focused for now on lifting tge debt ceiling through the 2014 elections without including any policy riders — although a shorter time frame may appeal more to Republicans.
The 54 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus appeared united on the debt ceiling plan Monday with the support of Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) but now must pick off six members of the GOP to vote with them — no easy lift given the lukewarm reception given to the proposal.
By lunchtime, a group including rank-and-file Senate Republicans as well as leadership had already huddled in the office of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to strategize on the debt ceiling.
“I think most of our members believe any discussion of increasing the debt ceiling has to involve a discussion of spending reforms,” Blunt said in an interview. “It has to come at the same time.”