With the government shutdown dragging on and a deadline to raise the nation's debt ceiling just five days away, hope for a compromise to break political gridlock in Washington shifted to the Senate Saturday after talks between the White House and House Republicans collapsed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say they are working to broker a deal, although both sides warn that those conversations are only in the preliminary stages.
Senate Democratic leaders met with President Barack Obama at the White House Saturday afternoon to discuss a way forward. The Senate will be in session on Sunday.
Reid said during a press conference that he and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., opened formal talks with an "extremely cordial" but "preliminary" meeting with McConnell and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Saturday morning.
"I hope that our talking is some solace to the American people and the world," Reid said. "This hasn't happened until now."
But the Nevada senator reiterated that Democrats will not view ending the shutdown or raising the debt ceiling as concessions in the negotiations.
"They're not doing us a favor by reopening the government," Reid said of Republicans. "They're not doing us a favor by extending the debt ceiling. That's part of our jobs."
Lawmakers said the talks were cause for some optimism.
"The only thing that's happening right now is Senator Reid and Senator McConnell are talking and I view that as progress," Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters earlier at the Capitol. "I hope that continues towards a bipartisan resolution."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, said there is "reason to believe that ultimately, we'll work it out."
A loose working group of moderate Republicans -- led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine -- had been working on a proposal that would reopen the government until March and lift the debt ceiling through January. But Senate Democratic leaders rejected that idea.
The Collins proposal, Reid said, "is not going to go anyplace at this stage."
Aides said Democrats disagreed with the length of a proposed government funding measure in the Collins proposal. Her plan would have only funded the government until March 31st, 2014. Senate Democrats wanted that time period to be longer.
Democratic leaders also wanted a longer debt limit increase than Collins had proposed, and they had reservations about the amount of spending in the Maine Republican's plan.
Earlier Saturday, the Senate -- as expected -- failed to advance a measure that would have raised the debt ceiling until after the 2014 midterm elections.
In a statement, the White House called the blockage of the "clean" debt bill "unfortunate."
"Congress must do its job and raise the debt limit to pay the bills we have incurred and avoid default," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
That vote came after House GOP leaders announced that conversations with the White House to forge a path forward had all but collapsed. In a Saturday morning meeting, House Speaker John Boehner told GOP lawmakers in the House that Obama had yet to respond to House proposals to end the fiscal impasse.
The message of that meeting, sources in the room said, was a "let's stick together" pep rally, with leaders saying Senate Republicans must "hold strong" and fight against any plan that fails to hew to GOP goals.
Boehner informed the conference that they're waiting to see what Senate Republicans offer to the White House, but that if the House GOP stays strong and united, they can reject any proposal that they think does not go far enough.
After a series of unrelated measures considered Saturday before noon, the House adjourned, with no votes currently scheduled until 6:30 p.m. on Monday.
House Democrats kept up attempts to bring up a "clean" continuing resolution that would restore funding for the government, marching into the House chamber and making repeated procedural requests for a vote. But without support from moderate House Republicans, those efforts were only for show.
One sticking point in the negotiations so far has been the length of the debt ceiling extension.
House Republicans had put forward a six-week delay, which Democrats argue would set up another fiscal crisis right before the crucial holiday shopping season.
Democrats said Saturday that the length of the government funding and the debt ceiling are up for debate in the negotiations.
"We are negotiating that. I'm not locked in stone," Reid said.
NBC's Frank Thorp contributed.
First published October 12 2013, 6:34 PM