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Senate leaders take over

Talks hit an impasse heading into the weekend.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Talks hit an impasse heading into the weekend.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada leaves the Senate floor to meet with Democratic Senators on Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. (Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP)

Top Senate leaders are taking over negotiations to end the almost two weeks of a government shutdown and avert default before the U.S. breaches the debt ceiling in just four days.

The Senate Democratic leadership headed to the White House Saturday afternoon, after talks between President Obama and House Republicans dissolved leading into the weekend.

Yet high-level bipartisan negotiations in the Senate were ongoing, a sign that both the shutdown and the conflict over the debt ceiling might be resolved before the debt limit is reached on Oct. 17.

“They’re not doing us a favor by reopening the government,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said at a press conference Saturday afternoon. “They’re not doing us a favor by extending the debt ceiling. That’s part of our jobs.”

Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins had proposed a plan that would fund the government for six months, extend the debt ceiling for several months, and delay of a tax on medical devices that was passed in 2010 as part of the president’s signature health care bill. But Democrats rejected Collins’ overture Saturday afternoon, saying that the plan demanded concessions without providing Democrats with anything in return.

Negotiations between Reid and his Republican counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, were ongoing. “The only thing that’s happening right now is Senator Reid and Senator McConnell are talking and I view that as progress,” Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn told reporters Saturday.

McConnell has been signalling that he’s ready to deal. “I’ve fully demonstrated that as much as I would rather have a Republican president and would rather be the majority leader of the Senate, I’m willing to work with the government we have — not the one I wish we had,” McConnell told the Lexington Herald-Leader Friday. “It’s time to get the government back to work and to begin to solve some of the seemingly intractable problems the country has.”

Yet Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic attempt Saturday to pass a clean bill raising the debt ceiling until after the 2014 elections. The bill would have made it impossible in the near-term for the GOP to seek to extract policy concessions under threat of forcing the US government into default.

House Speaker John Boehner also hosted a meeting with his conference Saturday morning, which sources told NBC News resembled a “pep rally” — a call for Republicans to stick together in the final days before the country hits the debt ceiling on the 17th. House Democrats attempted to bring a bill to the floor that would end the shutdown Saturday afternoon. But since the GOP controls the House, and Republicans opposed to shutting down the government have yet to split from their caucus in large enough numbers to bypass GOP control of the chamber, the effort failed.

Sources also told NBC News that the White House had not responded to House GOP proposals for ending the standoff. Any bipartisan deal is expected to come from the Senate.

On Friday, Press Secretary Jay Carney struck an optimistic note. “The president believes that in his meetings yesterday with House Republican leaders, and today with Senate Republicans as well as, of course, with House and Senate Democrats, that there have been constructive talks,” Carney told reporters at the White House press briefing. “When it comes to the House Republicans, in particular, there is an indication, anyway, of a recognition that we need to remove default as a weapon in budget negotiations.”

If Republicans do strike a deal, they may have trouble explaining it to their base, which appears to believe that public opinion remains on their side and that the shutdown is playing out to their favor.

“Democrats are feeling the heat!” Texas Senator Ted Cruz, one of the architects of the shutdown, told attendees at the gathering of conservative activists known as the Values Voters Conference on Friday. “The greatest trick the left has ever played is to convince conservatives we cannot win.”

Cruz spent the weeks before the shutdown urging Republicans to close the government rather than fund the Affordable Care Act. But implementation of the president’s health care law went ahead anyway, albeit with some notable glitches.

Almost two weeks since the shutdown began however, repealing Obamacare no longer even seems to be on the table.