Senate Democratic and Republican leaders indicated Sunday that their negotiations are stuck over questions of how to deal with the automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester.
Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have been trying to forge an agreement to reopen the government and raise the debt limit. But they seemed to acknowledge in dueling statements that their talks have expanded beyond those two items and into broader discussions over future spending levels.
In his comments, Reid expressed a willingness to postpone the question of top-line spending levels to another day — after ending the government shutdown.
"There was one conversation on one of the Sunday shows today that said we were trying to break the caps set in the budget act, and we know that on Jan. 15 that's the second year of sequestration," the Nevada Democrat said in opening the Senate for an unusual Sunday afternoon session.
McConnell did not appear alongside Reid when the Senate opened for business.
Instead, the Kentucky Republican issued a Sunday afternoon statement praising a plan floated by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and 11 other senators that Reid's leadership team has already rejected.
"It would reopen the government, prevent a default, provide the opportunity for additional budget negotiations around Washington’s long-term debt, and maintain the commitment that Congress made to reduce Washington spending through the Budget Control Act — the law of the land," McConnell said. "It does all this while maintaining our commitments to reduce spending, cutting an Obamacare tax and improving anti-fraud provisions in the law. It’s time for Democrat leaders to take 'yes' for an answer."
That point demonstrates that the sequester funding levels would have continued under the Collins plan, something many Republicans support. The timing indicates, however, that talks aren't advancing — McConnell is supposed to be Reid's lead negotiating partner at this point.
Speaking about a continuing resolution that would essentially keep government funding flat, Reid said, "We voted to extend the CR to Nov. 15 — not a word about breaking the caps. We're happy to go forward with the CR as we've already voted for in this body. So, any talk about breaking the caps is not anything that came from us."
Something might be getting lost in translation.
Sen. Bob Corker said Sunday that if Democrats agreed to make modifications to mandatory spending going forward, that could offset higher spending on the discretionary side.
"That's not busting the caps," the Tennessee Republican said. "I think everyone sees the most practical solution is to substitute. You still have the same amount of spending ... you're adhering to the caps."
"Most people around around here look at that as a very sensible thing to do," Corker said.
The No. 3 Senate Democrat, Charles E. Schumer of New York, agreed that Reid and McConnell have been attempting to craft a larger budget deal and that spending levels have been under discussion. But he too indicated that Democrats are prepared to stay with flat government funding for the near future.
"That's been one of the sticking points. Neither Democrats or Republicans like the sequester. ... The dispute has been how to undo [the] sequester. Republicans want to do it with entitlement cuts. ... Democrats want to do it with a mix of mandatory cuts, some entitlement, and revenues. And so how do you overcome that dilemma?" Schumer asked Sunday on "Face the Nation."
"We're not going to overcome it in the next day or two. But if we were to open up the government for a period of time before the sequester took place, which is Jan. 15, we could have a whole bunch of discussions," Schumer said.
Schumer and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee have met with Reid and McConnell on the spending issue.
Any stopgap appropriations that run only for a time period short of Jan. 15 would set up another shutdown threat in the months ahead and would delay the long-standing partisan dispute over top-line spending levels.
The debate over spending levels isn't new, even if the vehicle is. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski has been pushing to replace the sequester cuts from the moment she assumed the gavel from the late Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii in December 2012.
The Maryland Democrat marked up bills in line with the Senate Democratic budget to a top-line number of $1.058 trillion, far in excess of the fiscal 2014 post-sequester number of $967 billion.
Reid's current shutdown and debt limit negotiating partner, McConnell, has been consistent from the outset that the spending level shouldn't rise above the $967 billion figure. GOP senators sought to block a Transportation-HUD spending bill before the August recess (even though Collins helped write it), because they disagreed with the overall spending level.
"Voting for appropriations legislation that blatantly violates budget reforms already agreed to by both parties moves our country in the exact wrong direction," McConnell said at the time.
Absent an agreement to turn off the sequester cuts, the reductions to the $967 billion figure would take place on Jan. 15 of next year regardless of the purported level.
Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.