WASHINGTON--House Republicans will vote on legislation Tuesday to form a new bipartisan, bicameral working group on fiscal issues.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., briefed GOP lawmakers earlier today on the latest strategy tied to the government shutdown, now in its eighth day. If Democrats agree to go along with the committee, it could be a mechanism to ending the government shutdown and eliminating the prospect of a default, at least in the short-term.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., meanwhile, used his authority to require all senators to report to the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon to again call on the House to reopen government and lift the debt ceiling without conditions. "Democrats stand unified, asking the speaker to reopen the government, the whole government, not bits and pieces of the government," Reid said.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Tuesday that Democrats will introduce legislation to suspend the debt ceiling through 2014, setting up a key procedural vote later this week.
Republicans will introduce a bill to provide pay to workers who are at their desks but not getting paid because of the shutdown. As part of the legislative push, the House will also approve the creation of what aides describe as a "working group" that is reminiscent of 2011's Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, commonly known as the supercommittee.
The supercommittee tried and failed to come to a bipartisan agreement for more than $1 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade. Because they failed, automatic budget cuts known as the sequester have kicked in this year affecting both defense and non-defense spending across-the-board. The cuts will stay in place unless Congress can find agreement for a mechanism to turn them off.
Aides familiar with the proposal said the new group will be different than the supercommittee because it will not have any legal authority, no date certain for a conclusion, and a gauzy framework only to discuss fiscal issues. However, the proposal is intended to create a new opportunity for Democrats to agree to negotiations.
The working group would consist of 20 lawmakers evenly split between the parties including six House Republicans and four House Democrats and six Senate Democrats and four Senate Republicans. The legislation outlines three priorities for the group: to set a top-line spending number through Sept. 2014, to establish conditions for a debt ceiling increase, and to propose spending reforms for mandatory programs like Medicare, Social Security, and the Affordable Care Act.
Leading Democrats voiced skepticism Tuesday that the group would work, in part because Republicans do not allow for new tax revenues to be part of the talks in the legislative outline. "They claim they want to talk about deficit reduction, but their bill immediately rules out talking about closing tax loopholes to help get our fiscal house in order," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Budget Committee.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he supported the idea of such talks, but not in the form Republicans' proposed Tuesday, which he characterized as "pretense over substance."
Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said Democrats were skeptical of the GOP's willingness to negotiate after Senate Republicans blocked 19 attempts by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., to go to conference to work out differences between the two budgets approved in the spring by the House and Senate.
"The Democrats have been ready to negotiate on a budget since March 23, 2013. What do you mean, 'let's just have a conversation'," said Mikulski, "We've been trying to have that conversation since March. Who stopped us?"
So far, President Obama and Reid have said they will not negotiate budget issues until Republicans vote to first reopen government and approve an increase in the nation's $16.7 trillion debt limit without conditions. On Tuesday, Reid reiterated his call for House Republicans to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling first.
"And then you have my commitment, everyone has my commitment: Open the government, raise the debt ceiling, and we'll talk about anything you want to talk about," Reid said.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the president called the speaker Tuesday morning and reiterated that he won't negotiate on a government funding bill or debt limit increase. At an afternoon news conference, Obama question the need for the GOP proposed working group. "I don't know that we need to set up a new committee for a process like that to move forward," he said, noting that the House and Senate Budget Committees have the power to negotiate a budget resolution without forming a new panel.
Boehner responding by saying the president was seeking "unconditional surrender" from congressional Republicans. Boehner was equally insistent that negotiations will take place before the Oct. 17 debt limit deadline. "The long and short of it is, there's going to be a negotiation here," Boehner told reporters. "I want that conversation to occur now."