Senators Hunt For Budget Agreement

Deal or no deal? That's the question in American politics right now as the shutdown drags on and the debt ceiling looms. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Thirteen days into the federal shutdown, talks between the House of Representatives and the White House have dead-ended. And the focus in Washington for the moment has shifted to the Senate. Majority leader Harry Reid and Minority leader Mitch McConnell began talks yesterday. Reid described the conversation as quote, "very positive," though he cautioned there is still a long way to go toward resolving the standoff.

For more, we are joined by NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So I just outlined the basics. Can you fill in the blanks as to where we are right now in all of this?

LIASSON: Well, the latest is, as you said, the Senate is going to give it a try. After House speaker Boehner signaled he could not get his conservatives to agree to anything that the president would sign. So, so far, Senate Republicans have rejected a plan by Senate Democrats to lift the debt ceiling till the end of next year. And Senate Democrats have rejected a plan by a moderate senator - Susan Collins of Maine - that would've opened the government till March and raise the debt ceiling only until January 1st.

Majority leader Harry Reid wants to get that debt ceiling off the table. He wants to raise it for as long as possible. But he wants to keep the government shutdown on a shorter leash; open it just for a shorter period of time because that's what's causing the most pain for Republicans and that's his leverage with them. He also wants to get rid of some of those deep spending cuts, known as the sequester.

So that's where we are; facing a deadline of October 17th when the government runs out of money to pay its bills. The House has been sidelined and now we'll see if these two crafty, old leaders in the Senate...

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: ...Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell can pull a rabbit out of the hat again.

MARTIN: Can they do it? Well, when this whole started, Mara, Republicans were everywhere talking about upending the Affordable Care Act. Not so anymore, have they given up that part of the strategy?

LIASSON: Yes, they really have. Although it is possible that one tiny little piece of Obamacare, a tax on medical devices, could be delayed for a while as part of a final agreement, because a lot of Democrats and Republicans both don't like that tax. And the president hasn't drawn a line in the sand on it. But the bigger point is that Republicans have given up on delaying or defending Obamacare. And now they're essentially suing for peace on the shutdown and the debt ceiling because they couldn't stop Obamacare and they were losing in the polls.

There was a particularly stunning poll this week from The Wall Street Journal/NBC that showed up by a 22-point margin, the public blamed the Republicans for the shutdown more than they blamed President Obama. The approval rating for the Republican Party has fallen to its lowest in the history of the poll. Only 24 percent of people have a favorable opinion of the Republicans. And what's even worse, while 51 percent of people thought the president was putting his political agenda ahead of the country in the standoff, 70 percent thought that of the Republicans.

MARTIN: So, Mara, here's my question. If the proposals being floated so far are just calling for pushing back the debt ceiling deadline - temporarily re-opening the government - isn't that just kicking the can down the road? What's to say we won't be in the same spot later?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question and we could be in the same spot later. Although I think it would be very hard politically for Republicans to make a shutdown or a possible default part of their strategy again. But remember, the reason we're here -at this latest crisis - is because we've already kicked the can down the road so many times. The speaker and the president tried and failed several times to get a grand bargain to solve the bigger fiscal problems and they failed.

So the question is could some version of that bargain - Democrats agreeing to cut entitlements, Republicans agreeing to raising revenue through tax reform - would they be any more likely to make that deal now or in six months than they have been in the past? And that's a big question. Will Republicans be any more amenable to raising revenues through tax reform because that's been the biggest sticking point.

MARTIN: NPR's political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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