Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 12, 2016

Could These Senators Solve the Shutdown and Debt Limit Mess?

With Speaker John A. Boehner still trying to figure out what, if anything, he can pass to reopen the government and avoid a catastrophic default on the debt, the Senate may be the place where a deal to end the current impasse must arise.

If or when that time comes, the key question turns to who in the polarized chamber might be able to craft a plausible agreement.

“You should make a list of 20 Democrats and then for the Republicans just put one big question mark,” quipped one Democratic aide.

Democrats, who are insisting on clean continuing resolution and debt ceiling bills, do not believe there are any Republicans who have enough clout to broker an agreement that could pass the Senate, even if Democrats did offer concessions.

One sign of hope came Wednesday as House Republicans began to formally shift their demands from dismantling the Affordable Care Act to reducing government spending and debt. But it remained unclear whether Democrats or the White House would be willing to even entertain that effort.

What is clear is that people are talking, and there are a few senators who are better positioned than others to take the leap.


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

McConnell has been the dealmaker-in-chief since Republicans took over the House in 2011, often negotiating deals with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., to the chagrin of Democrats. Even with an upcoming primary challenge, McConnell is still the likeliest of all senators to find some sort of resolution to an impasse that has morphed into a political Rubik’s Cube.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine

Collins has offered a plan to resolve the shutdown that would fund the government, repeal an unpopular medical device tax and give federal agencies flexibility to deal with the across-the-board cuts previously mandated by sequestration. Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have come out in support of the plan, and others have cited it as an example of a path forward.

“I’m hopeful that this plan provides at least the concepts that could be the basis for us reopening government and moving forward and showing that we can govern,” Collins said Wednesday.

“I’m hearing from many Democrats that if there were a way to deal somehow with the debt limit as well as part of this plan that that would be helpful,” she continued. “I think it’s difficult to imagine my caucus supporting a trillion-dollar increase in the debt limit without some sort of reforms or reduced spending attached to it.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio

Portman has been engaged in meetings with House and Senate Republicans. He told CQ Roll Call he met with a group of House Republicans on Wednesday morning, and he has been a confidant of McConnell on budget issues since he was elected to the Senate in 2010.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

McCain has been a favorite partner of Democrats this cycle, pushing immigration reform over the finish line, dealing with Democratic leaders to resolve a standoff on rules changes and generally railing on tea party conservatives as “wacko birds.” It’s unclear who McCain’s constituency might be if he came to the table, but he’s recently shown a willingness to at least take a seat.

“No progress, but there never is until we reach a breakthrough, and I’m not saying we ever will reach a breakthrough, but I’m saying that conversations are going on,” McCain said, while also praising Collins for her proposal.

McCain also noted that he’s already in talks with some Democrats: “I’ve had endless conversations. I’ve had six phone calls in the last 20 minutes from people who want — Democrats who are interested in resolving this.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Paul might seem like a long shot to negotiate any kind of budget deal, but his importance to McConnell increases as the leader gets closer to his primary in the Bluegrass State. Paul, though outside of establishment GOP views on many issues, has shown much more willingness to work with colleagues and across the aisle than Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for example. And if he were to be named to some sort of debt panel to give conservative credibility to a work product, it would not be surprising.


Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The Senate Budget chairwoman led the failed Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction and has been pushing for a conference committee on the budget for months. She has the respect of Democrats and at least some Republicans, but she has indicated recently she never felt that GOP supercommittee members were empowered to cut a deal. She reportedly has been having regular talks with her House counterpart, Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., for much of this year, but those discussions have not borne fruit.

Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

Durbin and Schumer are two of Reid’s top emissaries, with each senator bringing different assets to the table. Durbin served on the president’s debt commission and the oft-discussed but deal-less Senate “gang of six.” He has shown a willingness to deal in good faith with Republicans. Schumer, too, has recently shown an ability to deal with McCain and other Republicans on big issues such as immigration and gun control. But it’s unclear whether those relationships would translate to budget talks.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.

Always a wildcard and sometimes an irritant to leadership, Manchin has demonstrated time and again his desire to strike a deal with Republicans to prove that government works. It’s unclear whether he’s in a position to break with leadership on this matter, however, given the Democratic strategy and a recent public relations misstep when he declared President Barack Obama should delay the individual mandate for the health care law for a year.

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