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Senate Leaders talk; GOP blames Obama for gridlock

Emmarie Huetteman and Jeremy W. Peters
President Barack Obama
Jewel Samad | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Sunday kept up the drumbeat of blame against President Obama for what they say is his failure to negotiate with them on the fiscal crisis that will come to a head on Thursday, when the government will run out of money to pay its bills.

As the Republicans pointed fingers at the White House, Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell met again on Sunday in an effort to come up with some sort of agreement — even one that will kick the most pressing problems down the road for a few weeks or months.

Their discussions appear to be the only hope, at least on Sunday, for a deal after talks between House Republicans broke down on Saturday, with no indication when they would resume. The House was not meeting on Sunday, although the Senate would be called into session.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on ABC's "This Week" that he could feel a deal "coming together" as Mr. Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, and Mr. McConnell, the chamber's top Republican, prepared for their second day of talks.

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But Mr. Graham also warned his colleagues that the longer the showdown lasted, the more damage they were doing to Congress. "To my colleagues in the House on both sides, and to my friends in the Senate, we're ruining both institutions," he said.

Congressional Republicans continue to push for policy concessions from Democrats, such as changes to the 2010 health care law, in exchange for reopening the government and raising the federal debt ceiling. Democrats continue to resist such concessions, arguing that they would encourage future budget crises by rewarding the Republican strategy. Democrats have shown some willingness to consider concessions in exchange for policy preferences of their own, such as undoing some of the cuts to domestic programs earlier this year known as sequestration.

Some of the senators also sought to redirect the conversation from the shutdown and debt ceiling fight to the issue that closed the government on Oct. 1: the House Republicans' insistence that they would not pass any spending bill that included financing for the new health care law. The health care fight has largely been forgotten since the government shut down and the debt ceiling deadline approached, and some lawmakers worried that it could again derail negotiations for a settlement.

Mr. Graham, for one, said that "defunding Obamacare" or delaying it for a year was "not a realistic possibility now." The law partly went into effect the same day the government shut down.

"The shutdown will be old news next year," he added. "Obamacare's faults will be front and center in 2014 if we don't screw this up."

But Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, said Mr. Obama was to blame for his refusal to deal with the fiscal crisis. "This is the first time in history that a president of the United States has said, 'Look, I'm not even going to talk about it,' " Mr. Portman said on NBC's "Meet the Press." He added later: "The president should engage. You've got to deal with the underlying problem, which is the spending problem."

(Read more: Senate leaders try to end debt, shutdown crisis)

On CNN's "State of the Union," Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, played down fears that a default on the debt this week would be the cause of a downgrade of the nation's credit rating, as happened during a similar showdown in 2011. The downgrade, he said, was not caused by the threat of default, but by the size of the United States' debt.

"The vast majority of people are afraid of what this growth of our debt is going to do to us," he said.

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On Saturday, Mr. Reid said he was slightly optimistic about his dialogue with Mr. McConnell. "I hope that our talking is some solace to the American people and the world," he said. (Not far away, officials meeting in Washington at the annual sessions of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank publicly expressed alarm that the United States might provoke a global debt crisis by Congress's inaction.)

"Senator McConnell and I have been in this body a long time," Mr. Reid added. "We've done things for a long time together. We don't agree on everything, and that's, as you know, an understatement."

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The relationship between the two men has been so chilly that it took two other senators, Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, to arrange the meeting.

For Speaker John A. Boehner and other House Republicans, the options were much grimmer. If Mr. Boehner compromises, he risks angering the conservatives who dominate his conference. For its part, the White House is sticking with its stance that it will not negotiate until the government is reopened and the debt ceiling is raised.

The White House has no public events planned on Sunday, although aides did not rule out that Mr. Obama might confer with some lawmakers, as he did with Senate Democrats on Saturday afternoon. Mr. Schumer, who was at that meeting, said: "There's a will among all three parties — the president, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans. Now we'll see if there's a way."

Earlier on Saturday, conservatives left their meeting at the Capitol in a sour mood, with many saying they were outraged that Mr. Obama had refused to meet them halfway.

Representative John Carter of Texas described Mr. Obama as "acting like a royal president."

(Read more: The best ways to punish Congress)

"He's still 'my way or the highway,' " Mr. Carter said.

With concerns growing that global financial markets could be thrown into turmoil if Congress does not agree to raise the debt ceiling, Republicans said they did not know whether Mr. Boehner would have enough support from the most conservative members in his conference to put a Senate plan up for a vote — if the leaders reach a deal.

"The question is: What will Senate Republicans do; what will Senate Democrats do?" said Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois.

Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California, added: "The problem here is that we don't have a functioning majority. After three weeks of this, they're still not figuring it out. I don't know what it takes."

The failure of talks with the White House further strained the relationship between House Republicans and the president. It was the House Republicans' refusal to approve a spending bill unless it stripped financing from the health care law that shut down the government. And now Republicans in the Senate and the House are looking for a way out of the crisis.

With the latest developments, Representative Aaron Schock, Republican of Illinois, said there had been "a total breakdown in trust" between House Republicans and the administration.

Feelings ran so high on the House floor on Saturday morning that there was a brief altercation between Representative Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, and Chris Vieson, the floor director for Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader. There were conflicting reports about whether the conflict became physical or was confined to words, but both sides said they had apologized.

If Republicans needed any reminder about how outraged their most conservative supporters would be if they committed to a compromise that did not include provisions to weaken the health care law, they needed look no further than out the window. Glenn Beck, the fiery radio personality, was leading a group of Tea Party activists on the National Mall.

Ashley Parker contributed reporting.