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Senators near deal, but House GOP remains wild card

Updated: November 16, 2013 6:16AM



WASHINGTON — Facing a Thursday deadline to lift the debt ceiling, Senate leaders on Monday were close to a stopgap deal to avert a default, reopen government and force budget negotiations. But there is no guarantee House GOP leaders will allow a vote, and a single dissident senator could hold the agreement hostage through the end of the week.

The tentative pact was hammered out between Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday, Day 15 of the partial federal government shutdown and days before the first-ever default in U.S. history.

Both leaders took to the Senate floor on Monday afternoon to declare they were optimistic they could come to an agreement, so much so that President Barack Obama canceled a hurriedly called meeting with Reid, McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at the White House. Vice President Joe Biden was to have joined them, perhaps to reprise the broker role he took on to break the fiscal cliff deadlock over New Years Eve.

According to a Senate source familiar with the negotiations, the Reid/McConnell deal would raise the debt ceiling though early February, reopen all of federal government through mid-January and call for long-deferred budget talks to be wrapped up by mid-December — before another round of automatic spending cuts kick in next January.

In addition, in the works would be two changes to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare — one sought by Republicans and another by Democratic-allied labor unions — fairly minor considering the shutdown was triggered by House Republicans demanding to defund, delay or derail the president’s signature health-care law. Even before the shutdown, the legislation to continue funding government that failed to pass was short-term, to run through mid-November or mid-December.

Though Obama vowed not to let Republicans hold Obamacare ransom, the White House, after all, is agreeable to the revisions being hammered out by the Senate leaders. Republicans would get stepped-up income verification procedures, to make sure people who apply for health insurance payment subsidies under Obamacare deserve them. Unions would get a delay for at least a year on a much-loathed provision, the $63-per-person annual charge nicknamed the “belly-button tax.” Off the table, for now, is a medical-device tax created in the Obamacare law.

House leaders were seemingly sidelined from the main negotiating action eclipsed by the Senate leaders hammering out a deal with the White House. That’s in large part because the Senate has a track record of bipartisanship and the House does not.

McConnell conferred with Boehner on Monday. The speaker will gett his first soundings from House members when they meet at 8 a.m. Tuesday at the Capitol.

Boehner has refused to call votes on debt limit and government funding resolutions that do not have the support of the majority of the 232 House Republicans. Because there are 200 House Democrats, only a small number of Republicans would be needed to get to the 217 votes needed to pass — if there were an up-or-down vote. So far, Boehner has not wanted to allow votes on legislation that would pass mainly with Democratic support. The Senate compromise may be a tough sell to House Republicans — but Boehner could proceed to a floor vote with 116 House Republicans.

GOP and Democratic senators hold separate meetings at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. Presuming the senators give a green light, there could be a Senate vote sometime Tuesday. If a senator threatens a filibuster — perhaps Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) or Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — under Senate rules a vote would have to be be delayed — probably until Friday — to take the roll call to close down that threat.

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