A postponed high-stakes meeting at the White House. A rescheduled closed-door gathering of Republican senators. Leaders of the bitterly divided Congress ducking into each others' offices. President Barack Obama, behind a table of bologna sandwiches, pressing lawmakers to forge an 11th-hour deal to spare the fragile economy from a potentially catastrophic debt default.
And from the chaos, growing optimism about a possible deal — even though it may just set the weary country up for another confrontation in only a few short months.
With the partial government shutdown entering its third week and the United States due to slam into the congressionally set debt ceiling in just days, top lawmakers and Obama sounded uncharacteristically hopeful Monday about an agreement to get back to business and avert a default.
Two Democratic Senate aides cautiously described the emerging deal as including a debt-ceiling hike that would last until Feb. 7 or 15, 2014, providing enough money to keep the government open until mid-January, and securing a commitment from all sides to launch comprehensive negotiations on the nation's finances.
Those broader budget discussions would not take the form of a supercommittee. (That ship has sailed — and sank.) Instead, negotiators from the Senate and House would meet to hash out differences on the budget — a “conference,” as called for under regular congressional procedure when the two chambers disagree. The conference would target an agreement by mid-December.
Democrats hoped those broader discussions would lead to some sort of compromise that would avert the next round of automatic, across-the-board “sequestration” spending cuts due to take effect in January.
Amid the frantic negotiations, the White House scheduled a 3 p.m. ET Oval Office meeting between Obama and the top GOP and Democratic leaders in Congress — then postponed it indefinitely, saying the president hoped to give lawmakers more time to reach a deal.
Senate Republicans encountered their own scheduling snafu, first calling a 5:45 p.m. ET closed-door conference to discuss the possible agreement, and then putting it off until Tuesday to accommodate lawmakers not yet returned from their district.
Obama staged a photo-op visit to a local food bank, posing in a green apron with kids and furloughed government employees — and facing a symbolic struggle of his own, as polarized Washington leaders struggled to seal the deal.
“The Ziplock’s not zipping,” the president said, wrestling a sandwich into a plastic bag.
Obama told reporters that he hoped to use the White House talks to gauge “whether this progress is real.”
“And you know, my hope is that a spirit of cooperation will move us forward over the next few hours,” he said. The meeting was postponed not long afterward.
The postponed meeting would have included Republican House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Vice President Joe Biden was also due to attend.
The U.S. Treasury says the government will hit its debt ceiling Thursday, running out of the authority to borrow money to pay for existing programs and risking a debt default that experts warn will send shock waves through the fragile global economy.
“Not only is it untenable for us to continue this shutdown — this week if we don't start making some real progress both in the House and the Senate, and if Republicans aren't willing to set aside some of their partisan concerns in order to do what's right for the country, we stand a good chance of defaulting,” Obama warned. “And defaulting would have a potentially devastating effect on our economy, sending interest rates shooting up, [and] people — whether Social Security recipients or people with disabilities or small-business people who are vendors to government — not getting paid on time.”
“We've already had a damaging effect on our economy because of the shutdown,” the president added. “That damage would be greatly magnified if we don't make sure that the government's paying its bills, and that has to be decided this week.”
Reid and McConnell have been working behind the scenes to cobble together a deal, and a bipartisan group of 12 senators has been doing the same. Ultimately, though, the question is: How will the House GOP respond, with time already running short?
"We're getting closer," Reid told reporters after he met privately with McConnell.
The Republican leader agreed: "We’ve had an opportunity to have some constructive exchanges of views on how to move forward. I share his optimism — we will get a result that will be acceptable to both sides."
Several other lawmakers have sounded optimistic notes about getting a deal done quickly.
“I think we'll solve this problem over the next few days. I think today may be a very good day,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told MSNBC’s "Morning Joe."
But Obama said he would keep pushing Congress “until the details are done.”
And the president appeared to refer to public opinion polls that have shown Republicans bearing the brunt of the blame for a shutdown that their tea party-affiliated rank and file triggered by demanding that the president accept some rolling back of his signature health care law, Obamacare.
“There's been some progress on the Senate side, with Republicans recognizing it's not tenable, it's not smart, it's not good for the American people to let America default,” he said.