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posted: 10/12/2013 8:15 PM

Protracted fiscal debate grates on lawmakers

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  • Associated PressRepublican senators, from left, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, center, and Orrin Hatch of Utah, leave Friday from the North Portico of the White House in Washington, after meeting with President Barack Obama regarding the government shutdown and debt ceiling.

    Associated PressRepublican senators, from left, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, center, and Orrin Hatch of Utah, leave Friday from the North Portico of the White House in Washington, after meeting with President Barack Obama regarding the government shutdown and debt ceiling.

By Rosalind S. Helderman

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Even for a Congress where griping is endemic and insults routine, spirits were especially dark on Saturday.

For a legislative body that takes six weeks for its August break, the third consecutive working Saturday without any solution to the crises in sight meant short tempers and foul moods.

Most vocal in their bitterness were House Republicans, who voted midday and then left Washington until Monday, sputtering as they went that President Barack Obama had halted talks with their leaders in favor of negotiating with Senate Republicans -- and even angrier that their Senate colleagues seemed receptive to the president's overture.

"They're trying to cut the House out, and trying to jam us with the Senate. We're not going to roll over and take that," said House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican.

Rep. Aaron Schock, an Illinois Republican, not generally considered one of the House's bomb-throwers, advised Republicans in the Senate to "grow a backbone and stand up with the House Republicans, like they said they were going to."

Senate Republicans were likewise fed up with their House colleagues, for refusing to accept that they will not win major changes to the federal health-care law and that their party's leverage only decreases as the shutdown drags and default approaches.

"Our friends in the House apparently can't muster the votes to send something over here to open up the government, so it's dysfunction at every level," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Several rounds of past budget fights have ended with Senate Republicans forging agreement with Senate Democrats and then shoving it over to the House to be adopted on a bipartisan vote, over the objections of the GOP's most conservative members.

Republicans in both chambers appeared to be bracing for a repeat of that outcome, which would solve the crisis but only deepen mistrust between Republicans in the Senate and in the House.

But the ill will was broadly shared.

In the House, a Republican aide accused a leading Democrat of a physical confrontation with another GOP aide on the floor the House. The congressman acknowledged a heated exchange but denied jabbing the man in the chest.

In the Senate, a bipartisan proposal to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling written by Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins provided a glimmer of hope Friday. It was declared dead a day later.

Senate Democrats emerged grim-faced from a 90-minute, closed-door meeting where leaders briefed them on nascent talks underway between GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in place of the Collins proposal, which ran aground amid Democratic opposition.

"Adults will get in the room sooner or later," said Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat, exiting the meeting early.

Manchin had backed Collins' proposal, which would have funded the government at current levels for six months and raise the debt limit through the end of January. It would have required the House and Senate to enter broader budget negotiations but left in place the deep across-the-board cuts known as the sequester while they talked.

An aide said other Democrats, who had opposed Collins' proposal because it would have left the sequester untouched, had been growing annoyed with their own leadership late Friday and Saturday morning, as rumors spread that a deal was being forged around its tenets before they had been briefed about it.

"The key to this place is communication, even if there's nothing to say," the Democratic aide said. "If members feel like they're being kept out of the loop, they get upset."

Likewise, in the House, Virginia Republican Rep. Scott Rigell had a raised-voice hallway confrontation with a member of his leadership in clear view of reporters, demanding to know how House leaders plan to resolve the stalemate.

"If Eric Cantor and John Boehner can't answer the questions 'what are we fighting for' -- that's not good!" Rigell told Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the House's fourth-ranking Republican.

Rigell has been one of the leading Republican voices urging the GOP to pass a measure to reopen the government, even without getting significant changes to the Affordable Care Act in return.

"We're on the same page, but we need to be able to articulate specific objectives," he continued, jabbing his finger in the air to make the point, before an aide came over to suggest that the two continue the conversation in private.

But the low point of the day came when a spokesman for GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia, accused Rep. Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, of having a physical altercation with another Cantor aide on the House floor.

Crowley denied touching the aide during the incident, which came after Republicans shut down an attempt by Democrats to lodge repeated requests for the chamber to consider a bill to reopen the government without any conditions.

"He had come to our side and was yelling across the aisles that they were shutting down the debate and pulling the bill," Crowley told reporters shortly after the incident.

"I said to him then, the staffer is shutting down democracy! And he said, 'That's right,' " Crowley said.

Crowley said it was the aide who was out of line and who in fact apologized for his conduct after the encounter. A Cantor spokesman said later that all sides had spoken and resolved the matter.

Talks were expected to continue in the Senate through Sunday, where several members expressed hope that a breakthrough was not far off -- always darkest before the dawn, and all that.

"There's good discussion going," said Virginia Democratic Sen. Timothy Kaine, generally one of the chamber's sunniest members. "I see us getting there, in fits and starts."

But, he conceded: "I think people are pretty tired and haggard."

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