With a government shutdown beginning its 13th day and a potential default on the nation's debt arriving in mere days, you could be forgiven for thinking that lawmakers might have some semblance of an idea about how they'll eventually resolve the crises they face.
But that doesn't mean you'd be correct.
Ain recent days to reopen the government and raise the nation's debt ceiling, which must be accomplished by October 17 if the nation is to avoid the potentially calamitous threat of a default on its debt, according to the Treasury Department.
Despite the lingering shutdown and the imminent threat of default, negotiations remain at a standstill, with both parties and both houses of Congress charting divergent paths out of the fracas.
Defining optimism downward, the most encouraging sign that congressional leaders can point to is the fact that they're simply talking with one another, not that those talks have necessarily moved the debate any closer to a resolution.
"I hope that our talking is some solace to the American people," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on Saturday after discussions with Republican Senate leaders. "This should be seen as something positive, even though we don't have anything done yet."
On Saturday, the Senate failed to advance a bill that would raise the nation's debt ceiling through 2014, when the chamber's 45 Republicans blocked a motion to proceed to debate on the proposal.
Reid told reporters after the vote that it is "hard for [him] to comprehend" why every Republican voted against opening the debate.
Some, that would extend the debt ceiling through January, reopen the government for at least six months, and offer federal agencies great flexibility in absorbing the sequestration-mandated spending cuts that began in March, all in exchange for a repeal of the medical device tax (part of Obamacare).
That plan appeared to be dead in the water on Saturday afternoon, however, with Reid telling reporters that he appreciates Collins' proposal, but that it simply doesn't meet the requirements of a balanced deal.
"I appreciate her efforts...but the plan that she suggested that I've seen in writing is not going to go any place at this stage," he said. "They're not doing us a favor by reopening the government. They're not doing us a favor by extending the debt ceiling. That's part of our jobs."
Despite the Senate's series of aborted endeavors to end the impasse, Senate Democrats said they were encouraged by the tone of dialogue with Republicans. Reid met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in his office on Saturday morning. Though the discussion produced "nothing conclusive," Reid said, it was "extremely cordial," and the Republicans appeared to be genuinely interested in resolving the standoff.
Following a late afternoon meeting between Senate Democratic leaders and President Obama at the White House, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said, "The President and the leaders agreed that talks between Senate Democratic and Senate Republican leaders should continue in the coming days, but Democrats' position remains the same: Democrats are willing to negotiate on anything Republicans want to discuss as soon as we reopen the government and pay our bills."
The dialogue between Reid and McConnell in the Senate stands in marked contrast to the dysfunction in the House, which has all but given up seeking a solution as members wait and see what Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are able to produce.
The House Republican Conference met Saturday morning to devise a new strategy after cresulted in no agreement. The president has said he doesn't want to begin long-term budget negotiations with congressional Republicans until the debt limit is raised and the government is re-opened, something the House GOP hasn't accepted.
Exiting the conference meeting, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House Budget Committee chairman, said there was
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the president repeatedly refused to accept the offers put forward by House Republicans. "We'll do everything we can to make the point that we want to negotiate," he said.
House Republican leadership offered a proposal to increase the debt limit for six weeks with no strings attached and to thereafter enter into budget negotiations. Mr. Obama didn't accept that offer, but the dialogue continued. A modified proposal they presented Friday would erect a framework for negotiations on a bigger budget deal. That offer was rebuffed as well - the president has signaled that a bigger budget deal should also include a mechanism to raise new revenue, which Republicans have resisted.
House Democrats, meanwhile, are spearheading a "discharge petition" that would compel a vote on a bill raising the debt limit and reopening the government if it is signed by a majority of House members. If all 200 Democrats sign, they would need 18 Republicans to push the petition over the threshold and force a vote. It is highly unlikely their effort will succeed, despite the
Barring an unexpected agreement on Sunday, the raft of competing proposals and counterproposals will likely continue this week. The Senate is adjourned until 1 p.m. Sunday, and the the next votes in the House are scheduled for Monday afternoon, just days before the government will reach the end of its borrowing authority.
Amid the confusion, some members of Congress are openly admitting that they haven't the foggiest idea of how this story ends. "If anybody tells you they know, I think they're probably not being completely straight with you," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Friday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., seconded Cornyn's equivocal outlook on Saturday. "To the best of my knowledge, there are people that have different proposals floating around, there are probably four or five of those," she said, "but the proposal that will get the leadership of the House and the Senate and the president [is] not out there at this time."