WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama opened talks with House Republicans on Thursday about their plan to lift the federal debt limit through Thanksgiving, raising hopes that Washington would avert its first default on the national debt.
But after a 90-minute meeting at the White House, the two sides remained at odds over how and when to end the government shutdown – now in its 11th day – with Obama insisting that Republicans reopen federal agencies before negotiations over broader budget issues can begin.
In the Senate, top Republicans began crafting a proposal that would reopen the government and raise the federal debt limit for as long as three months – an approach closer to the terms Obama has set to end the standoff.
The developments meant that bipartisan negotiations were suddenly underway on two separate tracks Thursday after weeks of stalemate. Major questions remain, however, about the path ahead.
Both sides described Obama’s evening session with House Republicans as a “good meeting” and said talks will continue.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, left the session and returned to the Capitol without speaking to reporters. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the meeting was “clarifying,” even though it did not produce a resolution.
“He didn’t say yes. He didn’t say no,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “We’re continuing to negotiate this evening.”
White House officials were careful not to characterize the meeting as a negotiation, after the president spent weeks publicly and privately declaring that he would not negotiate over lifting the debt ceiling.
According to a Democrat familiar with the meeting, Obama told the speaker to come back with proposals for reopening the government but reiterated that he would not make policy concessions.
Republicans, however, did describe the process as a negotiation. The 20 House Republicans gathered in the Roosevelt Room with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and other senior administration officials.
A similar huddle is slated for late this morning when Obama will host Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the Senate Republican Conference. McConnell and Biden have been largely on the sidelines the past few weeks despite having served as the closers for the past three large fiscal compromises.
The House proposal that emerged Thursday would push off the threat of default from Oct. 17 until Nov. 22, but it would not end the shutdown, an idea that fell flat in the Senate with members of both parties.
For the first time since the brinksmanship began in early September, McConnell waded into the fray, holding meetings with his rank-and-file members to develop a competing Senate proposal.
The Senate, meanwhile, is on track to vote Saturday on a separate Democratic proposal that would suspend enforcement of the debt limit through 2014. It was unclear late Thursday whether that measure would proceed, or whether it would be replaced if an agreement with Republicans emerged.
Even if such a deal advanced in the Senate, it could face rough sledding in the House, where a contingent of Republicans remains committed to using the shutdown to undermine the Affordable Care Act, frequently called “Obamacare” by critics.
Boehner’s offer to temporarily lift the debt limit but keep the government shuttered was engineered in part to satisfy far-right conservatives, who first suggested using the threat of a shutdown to strip funding for the law.
On Thursday, many creators of that strategy – including Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah – voiced support for Boehner’s latest gambit.
“It’s to continue the fight on Obamacare, to not leave that as a side issue,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
But Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group influential with tea party Republicans, said it will not ask lawmakers to refocus attention on the health care law by voting against raising the debt limit with no strings attached. The conservative Club for Growth also announced that it will look the other way on the debt limit vote.
Since the shutdown began, senior Republicans have sought to shift the debate away from the Affordable Care Act and toward goals such as overhauling the tax code and replacing sequestration with cuts to entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare.
“If you’re in a global negotiation over the entire budget, then the health care law is part of the negotiation. But it’s probably not the only part and may not even be the central part,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday that “the president is happy that cooler heads at least seem to be prevailing in the House, that there at least seems to be a recognition that default is not an option.”