WASHINGTON — With a possible default on government obligations just days away, Senate Democratic leaders — believing they have a political advantage in the continuing fiscal impasse — refused Sunday to sign on to any deal that reopens the government but locks in more budget cuts for next year.
The disagreement extended the stalemate that has kept much of the government shuttered for two weeks and threatens to force a federal default.
The core of the dispute is about spending, and how long a stopgap budget measure that would reopen the government should last. Democrats want across-the-board cuts known as sequestration to last only through mid November; Republicans want them to last as long as possible. The Democrats' demand shows a newfound aggressiveness. Previously, they had favored a so-called clean bill that would reopen the government and lift the debt ceiling without any policy changes attached. With Republicans on the defensive, it remains unclear whether the Democrats are using a negotiating ploy to raise the likelihood that any final deal will include their priorities as well as the Republicans'.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — who spoke only briefly by telephone on Sunday — were inching forward and that a breakthrough was possible before the default deadline on Thursday.
"They had a good conversation," Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat, said on Sunday evening. "They are moving closer together, and I'm hopeful the Senate can save the day."
Republicans accused Democrats of accepting nothing short of capitulation without offering anything in return. "The Democrats keep moving the goal posts," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the lead Republican negotiators. "Decisions within the Democratic conference are constantly changing."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., warned on the CBS' Face the Nation the Democrats "better understand something."
"What goes around comes around," he said, "and if they try to humiliate Republicans, things change in American politics."
The talks moved to the Senate on Saturday after negotiations broke down between President Barack Obama and House Republicans.
A rally Sunday on the National Mall, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, was intended to show that tea party activists — supporters of the House Republicans who forced the shutdown over their opposition to the health care law — were in no mood to give in. Some waved Confederate flags and called for Obama to be impeached.
The dispute may involve debt ceiling technicalities, but at the core of the fight is a more fundamental question: With polls showing that Republicans are carrying the brunt of the blame for the shutdown, can Democrats demand total surrender or should they offer concessions to complete the deal?
"You can't just demand pure capitulation," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "Negotiations don't work that way."
Republicans who once said that they would only finance the government if the president's health care law was gutted are in full retreat. A Senate bipartisan framework drafted by Collins and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., started with a face-saving repeal for Republicans of a tax on medical devices that helps pay for the Affordable Care Act. When Senate Democratic leaders objected, that was tempered to a two-year delay of the tax.
Republicans had also insisted on tightening income verification rules governing access to the health care law's subsidized insurance exchanges. Democrats are rewriting that language as well.
"What am I getting?" Collins said. "I'm serious. I've bent over backward."
Democrats have agreed to engage in formal budget negotiations — where, they acknowledge, Republicans may have the upper hand once the government is reopened and the threat of default is lifted. Both sides say they want a deal that reduces the deficit over the long term.
"We know that come 10 years from now, Medicare is not sustainable financially. We've got to do something," Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second ranking Democrat, said on the NBC's Meet the Press.
The Collins plan would keep sequester-level spending through Jan. 15, when budget negotiators would be required to complete a House-Senate agreement on spending and taxation over the next decade. The debt ceiling would be extended to Jan. 31.
McConnell formally endorsed the Collins proposal on Sunday.