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Last Hope? Still Stuck And Running Out Of Time, Reid And McConnell Meet On Debt Ceiling

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WASHINGTON -- The deadlock over the nation's government shutdown and looming debt crisis deepened Saturday as the Senate failed to advance a bill and talks between the White House and House Republicans were declared dead.

Despite that, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democratic leaders sought to soothe financial markets by saying that Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) began talking Saturday morning.

"I hope that our talking is some solace to the American people and to the world. This hasn't happened until now," Reid said. "This should be seen as something very positive, even though we don't have anything done yet and [have] a long ways to go before anything like that will happen."

An aide to Reid confirmed the two leaders met at McConnell's request, and were joined by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Senate Democratic leaders also met with President Barack Obama at the White House Saturday afternoon.

The government has been partially closed since Oct. 1, and the Department of the Treasury has warned that on Thursday it expects to run out of sufficient cash on hand to pay all the United States' bills unless Congress boosts the $16.7 trillion cap.

Two efforts to move the ball forward stalled in the Senate Saturday. First, Democratic leaders rejected a compromise plan by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Then Republicans united to vote against starting work on a measure that would have lifted the debt ceiling through next December.

Reid had warned shortly before the vote that if Congress fails to act before the deadline, the nation could suffer an economic calamity.

And all that was after House Republicans said that their talks with Obama ended with his rejection of their offer, which included a temporary reprieve of the debt limit.

Obama and Democrats have insisted that paying the country's bills and funding the operation of the government should not be bargaining chips, and they've refused to negotiate, saying they won't do so with a gun to the head. But they have pledged to talk after the government is running again and the default is averted.

The standoff began in September with a bid inspired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to defund Obamacare, linking that goal to funding the government. The issues have since shifted to larger concerns over debt, deficits and spending -- a point that Reid highlighted in a Capitol Hill news conference Saturday.

"Isn't it interesting, everybody, how that's not part of the discussion anymore?" he said. "Obamacare is no longer their number one issue. Their number one is to do anything they can to divert attention from the fools they've made of themselves on Obamacare."

After a plan from House Republicans was rejected by Obama Friday, Collins tried to advance a compromise that would have lifted the debt limit through January, and extended spending until March. It would have given Republicans a two-year delay of a medical device tax, and kept spending at levels they accept.

Democratic leaders shot that down, even though it had the support of at least five Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). They argued there was no reason to accept the compromise.

Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson told reporters that Democrats had two main problems with Collins' proposal: They wanted a longer debt limit hike, and didn't believe there should be concessions for the basic tasks of reopening the government and paying the country's bills.

He added that the flexibility approach to sequestration was floated before, and remained unpopular among Democrats who would rather replace the cuts.

With less than five full days before the United States treads into default territory, right now the only path forward lies in the talks with McConnell and Reid.

McConnell has been at the center of resolving two previous fiscal showdowns -- over the 2011 payroll tax and the 2012 fiscal cliff -- and the House was forced to ultimately swallow his deals.

But Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said the talks with McConnell and Reid are "nowhere near done."

"There's lots of discussion going on about what's the best path, but my gut says that some concerted effort to make sure we don't default is absolutely essential," he said.

Their meeting appears to be exactly what some House Republicans feared: being undercut by their colleagues in the Senate. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the Senate GOP should "stand firm" so Republicans in both chambers could "speak with one voice."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) disagreed with Cantor, noting the Senate shouldn't have to sit back and watch if the House is unable to move a "responsible" plan to end the government shutdown. "I just think we need to reopen the government," he said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) echoed Graham's sentiments.

"It is troubling, it is heartbreaking to think we have reached this point. We are motivated not only by what's good for the nation, but by the fact that the House Republicans have failed -- utterly failed -- in leadership," Durbin said. "Now we have to accept the responsibility and I hope we can rise to that."

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