Shutdown In Day 14, Debt Ceiling Deadline Nears

Congress and the White House continue to work through the twin fiscal crises of funding for the federal government and the debt ceiling. Steve Inskeep and David Greene explore the dimensions of this massive political drama with Cokie Roberts, who weighs in on political topics most Mondays on Morning Edition, Robert Costa of the National Review, who's been following developments on Capitol Hill, and Terence Samuel of The Washington Post, who has been following public attitudes nationally.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

Today is Columbus Day, a federal holiday. We make a special point of mentioning that because otherwise how could you tell? Federal offices are closed, just as many have been all month during the partial government shutdown.

INSKEEP: Lawmakers have been spending this holiday weekend talking, some. They know the U.S. reaches its debt limit on Thursday. Without some action by Congress and agreement by the president, the Treasury Department warns the United States would very soon start failing to pay its bills. And economists warn of potential economic disaster.

We're going to talk through the situation with the group that includes Cokie Roberts who joins us most Mondays. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Hi, David.

GREENE: Good morning, Cokie.

Robert Costa is also with us. He reports on Congress for National Review. And Terence Samuel has been tracking the mood in much of the country, as an editor of The Washington Post. They're both in the studio with us. Welcome.

ROBERT COSTA: Good morning.

TERENCE SAMUEL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And, Cokie, let's start with you, are we any closer to a solution?

ROBERTS: No. Not since Friday when we did start to see some action. There was really not much action over the weekend, except Senate majority leader Harry Reid saying that there are positive developments - but he hasn't said what they are. The Senate is working, some members of the Senate, on a bipartisan compromise. And it was those senators who are in the middle who were on the Sunday shows yesterday, saying that both sides have to give. But the Democrats seem to think that they have the Republicans on the run.

The Republicans have been responding to these poll numbers. And they have been pressing for relief from across-the-board budget cuts suddenly as a criterion for this deal. Now that's very unlikely in the context of this debt ceiling and government opening.

But meanwhile, the international bankers have been meeting in Washington, warning that there will be dire consequences of no action. And it's almost like they're begging the markets to react today to force the Senate into some sort of action. And then, of course, see what the House does.

GREENE: Robert Costa, you spoke with Republicans over the weekend. One of the challenges for them is that they haven't seemed to come to some sort of agreement on exactly what they're demanding here. They say they're demanding something; they can't come to some sort of agreement as to what that is. Are they getting closer to a cohesive message here?

COSTA: I think the Republicans very much remain confused. I sat down yesterday at Pete's Diner on Capitol Hill with Senator Lindsey Graham. And he said...

GREENE: That's a good spot.

COSTA: It's a great spot where speaker John Boehner often likes to have breakfast himself.

But it seems the Republicans can come together on a strategy. I think what the real story, or the most compelling story, is how the Democratic Party, especially Senate majority leader Harry Reid, how Democrats are reasserting themselves in driving this process.

I think Cokie had it right. They feel like Republicans are on the ropes. And they can maybe even at this 11th hour get some sequestration changes.

INSKEEP: We should have defined out for people. Sequestration are these mandated limitations on the budget across the board in the government, in which Democrats hate very much. And Republicans dislike in some instances but they want their own concessions to make changes to that.

COSTA: And that - this element of sequestration as part of a deal, really caused the collapse of the talks on Sunday in the Senate. Because Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, is very unwilling to budge on the spending levels that were established in 2011, and that's really what's causing the impasse to continue.

INSKEEP: Let's remember the federal shutdown continues as well as this debt ceiling issue that looms. Terence Samuel, of The Washington Post, you've been gathering in stories from your reporters across the United States. How closely is the public following this? How worried are people?

SAMUEL: Well, I think, you know, people have been talking about the ripple effect of this. And the ripple effect of this is the further away we get from the actual shutdown, the worse it gets for a lot of people. As we go from listening to people in Washington talk about sequestration, and people on one side suddenly making demands that hadn't been in place a week ago, people out there are talking about how this actually - they feel like they've been hit twice.

Once there was sequestration, they've been furloughed for 11 days and suddenly we have new furloughs. And now people are taking us there pretty seriously.

INSKEEP: You're talking about federal workers here taking this very seriously - people who've been off the job.

SAMUEL: A lot of federal workers, yes - the most immediately affected. But if you work in or live in a community like Colorado Springs or Hampton Roads, Virginia, where there is this huge federal presence, it's very quickly trickling down into people who sell real estate or people who have restaurants. It's tough out there.

GREENE: And I suppose, as more time goes on, you're talking about not just getting by with one paycheck that doesn't exist or is reduced. You're talking about two, three, four weeks and then things get harder and harder.

SAMUEL: So now we're up to day 14. People got paid last week and those paychecks were either 50, 40 percent less. And they're looking ahead to the next pay period where there're going to be no checks. And so, it's not just the fact that the money is disappearing but this uncertainty that's spreading kind of like across the country, as we see this happening.

INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts, is that affecting the debate in Washington, the unhappiness that Terry Samuel is noting from people across the country.

ROBERTS: Well, sure it is. Of course it is. I mean, look, we wouldn't be even talking about a deal if people weren't unhappy and if it weren't showing up in the polls, people blaming Washington, but blaming the Republicans a great deal more than they are blaming the Democrats. As Senator John McCain said yesterday, Republican approval is getting down to blood relatives and paid staffers, so.

INSKEEP: Or unpaid staffers.

SAMUEL: And the staffers that haven't been paid, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: That's right. So it's, you know, it is obviously having an effect. But it is also - I mean, the big difference in this time, as opposed to historic times, of dysfunction in Washington, is the world economy. I mean, we're dealing with a very serious question here and that's what the financial markets are trying to impress on Washington. Yes, Americans are hurting, but the whole world could be hurting a whole lot worse if they don't get their act together.

INSKEEP: Although, Robert Costa, sometimes Republican lawmakers have said, look, people in my districts aren't feeling this. Does the Republican leadership believe that this is hurting them in the public estimation?

COSTA: It's a great question. When I spoke to Republicans over the weekend, they feel like the government shutdown - Terry had some great points about how there's a lot of pain out there, but Republicans don't worry so much politically about the shutdown, but they are worried about averting default. And so what I'm hearing from Republicans is they're likely, if they can't come to any kind bipartisan deal today or tomorrow, try to pass a six-week extension of the debt limit and just try to shelve default for at least the time being.

GREENE: You're saying they're worried about the...

ROBERTS: But there's a real question of whether the White House would accept that because they...

COSTA: That's a good point.

ROBERTS: ...do feel like they've got the Republicans on the ropes and this suggests - puts it off, the same fight goes on for the next six weeks. It doesn't do anything to just do that. So...

GREENE: But when we talk about - go ahead, Coke.

ROBERTS: So you have, you know, you have an impasse continuing and I don't think that that's anything that anybody wants at this point. I think the key player here - and this is a huge change - is now Mitch McConnell. He had been sort of out of the fray, apparently worried about his own election. He's got a primary challenge, as well as a serious Democratic challenge, but clearly he's seeing that he needs to get into this and make a deal.

GREENE: Terry?

SAMUEL: But the news is that we've seen from past crisis like this that when Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid starts talking it's because we're somewhere moving towards some kind of compromise or resolution.

ROBERTS: Although it's coming from outside of the leadership. The people who are really talking, Senator Susan Collins, a Republican moderate of Maine, has put a proposal on the table and she's not meeting with a group of Democrats and Republicans. It's interesting. Many of them are the women in the Senate who tend to be the most bipartisan members of the Senate, and they are trying to hammer out a deal that they can then sell to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.

INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts, just because you've covered so many Congresses, I just want to get your instinct here. We heard elsewhere in the program from Christine LaGarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, who's very, very worried, but she said, quote, "We have faith in human beings and in their sagacity in view of the potential risks and I hope we won't be let down."

Now setting aside the notion that people in Congress are considered sages in that line, does it feel like a solution is in reach? In a few seconds.

ROBERTS: Yes. I do think it feels like a solution is in reach, but the problem is that now the Democrats are feeling their muscle and they have to be ready to take yes, as Mitch McConnell says, take yes for an answer.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Um-hum. Always good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: That's Cokie Roberts who joins us every Monday, along with Terry Samuel of The Washington Post and Robert Costa of National Review, trying to give us a sense of where this crisis is headed on this holiday Monday. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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