WASHINGTON -- The impasse over the nation's finances appeared closer to a short-term resolution Friday, as President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans showed greater flexibility, but all sides headed into the weekend without a deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.
While the outlines of an agreement that would involve a temporary fix followed by longer-term budget talks came into view, the president and lawmakers faced the challenge of framing such a deal in a way that they could all accept politically.
"We're obviously in a better place than we were a few days ago, in terms of the constructive approach that we've seen of late," White House press secretary Jay Carney said late Friday, after the president met with the entire Senate Republican conference and consulted by phone with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "But there's not an agreement."
Both houses of Congress were scheduled to meet over the weekend. But White House officials and senior lawmakers cautioned against expecting a quick deal, even though much of the incendiary rhetoric that has characterized the fiscal fight had given way to words such as "constructive" and "progress."
Senate Republicans emerged from a 90-minute White House meeting with Mr. Obama with a collective sense of tempered hope. A coalition of Republicans, many of them centrists from independent-leaning states who have been openly critical of their House colleagues' aggressive posture, was trying to find room to maneuver in a very tight space.
Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have repeatedly said they will not negotiate over reopening the government or raising the debt ceiling. But privately, a growing number said they had come to the realization that to insist on giving nothing at all to Republicans was a bargaining stance they might be unable to maintain.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of a handful of Republicans who often reaches across the aisle, said Mr. Obama had told them that he would be willing to "trade" something in exchange for their cooperation. "He said 'space for trading,' " she said. "So apparently, we are not talking about negotiation, we're talking about some trading space."
"I don't want to be overly optimistic that this will be resolved," said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., "but I'm more optimistic now than I have been for some time."
Mr. Toomey said plans that lawmakers in both chambers are working on probably won't include measures to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, as Tea Party Republicans have called for. But it could include repeal of a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices. Manufacturers say the tax is killing jobs and stifling innovation, but the White House has said the revenue, $30 billion over 10 years, is needed to offset costs of the act, also known as Obamacare. Still, in an apparent shift, the president indicated at his meeting with senators that he might be willing to drop the tax if he can find a way to replace its revenue, Mr. Toomey said.
The medical device tax surfaced in a broader discussion of several proposals gaining traction, including one by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Mr. Toomey said. Her plan would fund the government for six months and add enough borrowing authority to pay debts through January. "The president was certainly not dismissive of this approach," Mr. Toomey said, but it was one of several proposals discussed.
More substantive changes to the health overhaul law were not part of Friday's discussion, said Mr. Toomey, who seemed neither surprised nor disappointed.
"I never thought it was a good idea, and I never signed on to the approach of insisting we would shut down the government if we didn't defund Obamacare," he said. "As strongly opposed to Obamacare as I am, it is pretty clear to me that the president has a different point of view, and he's still the president. He was never going to sign legislation that would effectively negate what he considers to be his signature accomplishment."
Among some Democrats, especially Mr. Reid, there was a growing concern that the White House would be willing to bargain away too much. Many liberals were angry after the White House in the past cut budget and tax deals they felt surrendered too much to conservative demands.
White House officials said their allies need not worry. Confident that he had the upper hand politically, Mr. Obama met with or spoke by phone with business leaders and state governors to enlist them to lobby Congress to avoid a debt default. Aides said he was holding firm against any deal that included specific concessions sought by Republicans, especially involving Obamacare.
"It is our view that we cannot have a situation where the debt ceiling is extended as part of a budget negotiation for only six weeks, which would put us right back in the same position that we're in now," Mr. Carney said. But he said Mr. Obama "has seen indications from Republicans in both the Senate and the House in the last 24 hours that they, too, are interested in engaging in serious budget negotiations," if the government is first reopened and the borrowing limit raised.
Mr. Reid has put in motion a Senate process to begin voting today on a Democratic plan to raise the borrowing limit through the end of 2014, a move designed to pressure Republicans to avert what could be a devastating default after the government reaches the current limit Oct. 17.
A new poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal highlighted the peril for Republicans, showing they have shouldered a far larger share of the blame for the shutdown than Mr. Obama. Just 24 percent of Americans viewed Republicans favorably, an all-time low in the survey.
Republican lawmakers and aides repeatedly brought up the poll Friday. "The reality is we are, in the eyes of the American people, in very bad shape," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "You can't argue with those polls."
Post-Gazette Washington bureau chief Tracie Mauriello contributed. First Published October 11, 2013 8:00 PM