Shutdown prevention: Back-room talks start | Politico
Led by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and launched during the government shutdown as a springboard for bipartisan negotiations, the “common sense caucus” may offer solutions on budget issues that have long plagued each party.
For now, the group is working in the shadows of the more high-profile budget conference committee chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). The deadline for that panel to craft an agreement is Dec. 13, and there are some signs it might reach a narrow deal to replace the sequester with more targeted spending before the eruption of another fiscal impasse.
But if that effort fails, the 16-member Collins-Manchin group may be the best hope of avoiding another shutdown on Jan. 15. Members of the group — who say theirs isn’t one of the Senate’s famous gangs — believe their personal relationships and built-in communication infrastructure might offer Congress a way out.
“Let’s say the Budget Committee is unable to reach any kind of agreement,” Collins said. “I would think that our group would reconvene and talk about whether we could put together a plan.”
“They’re making some headway. Not as much as I’d like to see,” Manchin said of the budget leaders. “If they fall and get nothing and you come on the eve of a shutdown? You don’t want that to happen. We’re not going to let that happen.”
The group has been there before: Bipartisan deal makers like Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) believe their October talks and draft legislation paved the way for an eventual deal between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reopen the government and avoid a debt crisis.
The group includes lawmakers who aren’t afraid to buck their leadership, whether it’s Republicans Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voting with Democrats to advance President Barack Obama’s nominees or Democrats Manchin and Mark Pryor of Arkansas opposing Reid’s historic push to revamp the filibuster rules.
Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) described the caucus as “kind of the volunteer fire department,” explaining that it may again be called on to unlock negotiations during what looks to be a heated debate between two parties long divided over tax and spending policy.
The entire group met formally in early November and agreed not to disband, though members decided not to endorse specific policies until the budget committee negotiations play out. But the aisle-crossing crew has continued to meet in small groups and speak privately since the shutdown ended, mindful that it took precious days to build the bipartisan fiscal negotiating team during the 16-day government shutdown this fall.
For more than a week in October, Washington was paralyzed by the first government shutdown in 17 years. So Collins went solo to the Senate floor to pitch a plan that she believed both parties could support, a key breakthrough in terms of simply getting members of both parties talking to each other again.
“When nothing was happening, we tried to be a catalyst to get the government open,” Ayotte said.
“I really believe that we helped paved the way to an earlier end to the shutdown than otherwise would have occurred,” Collins added.
Spearheaded by the moderate Mainer, the group began discussing a proposal that would lift the debt ceiling, reopen the government, create a budget conference committee, offer sequestration flexibility, delay Obamacare’s medical device tax and enforce stricter income verification requirements on those seeking subsidies for health insurance.
Ultimately, Reid and McConnell made their own deal to end the deadlock, but members of the Collins-Manchin group believe their work spurred the Senate leaders toward an eventual compromise. They see a final proposal that included nearly everything they sought, save for the device tax delay and sequester flexibility, which liberal Democrats opposed because it would prolong the automatic budget cuts.
And with relations between Reid and McConnell at a nadir following Reid’s decision to eliminate the filibustering of most presidential nominees, it could again fall to rank-and-file members to figure something out at the last minute.
“As much as I hoped after the shutdown that everything would be bright and shiny because people would realize the repercussions of what they did — not only to the economy but to the reputation of the people working in [the Capitol] — I don’t really think that happened,” Klobuchar said. “We did some good things and we could do more in the future.”
The group includes a wide swath of centrist-minded senators: Manchin and fellow Democrats Klobuchar, Pryor, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Mark Warner of Virginia and independent Angus King of Maine. Republicans besides Collins include Johanns, Ayotte, Murkowski, John McCain of Arizona, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Dean Heller of Nevada.
Heller and Warner recently approached Collins to ask to join the group, she said. Save for Heller, the Republicans in the group supported the eventual Reid-McConnell fiscal agreement to reopen the government and lift the debt ceiling, defying conservative outside groups and their tea party-flavored colleagues.
Led by Collins and Manchin, perhaps the least reliable party-line votes in either caucus, the group believes it has developed a positive chemistry among members who are unafraid to take risks.
“What you have is a group of folks that are committed to trying to bring about constructive solutions to some of our difficult problems,” Murkowski said. “We kinda like hanging out with one another.”
Senate leadership isn’t entirely following the machinations of the group, aides in both parties said. But Collins, Manchin and company have given a friendly heads-up to Murray that if she and Ryan can’t make it work, they’ve got her back.
The fact that the group has stayed intact since the government reopened appears to only further motivate Murray to reach a budget deal with Ryan by the deadline and keep the Commonsense Caucus on the sidelines.
“They said they’re there for me when we need it,” Murray said. “They want us to get to a deal and they’re there to make sure that we find some way of coming to an agreement.”
By: Burgess Everett
Source: A bipartisan group of senators may serve as a last-minute lifeline if the government faces another shutdown at the start of next year.
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