WASHINGTON — As the government shutdown dragged on, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was spending another weekend on Capitol Hill, staring at C-SPAN on her Senate office television as one colleague after another came to the floor to rail about the shuttered government.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Collins, a Republican, two Saturdays ago quickly zipped out a three-point plan that she thought both parties could live with, marched to the Senate floor and dared her colleagues to come up with something better. A few days later, two other Republican female senators eagerly signed on — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who overcame the tea party to win re-election in 2010, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who benefited from the tea-party wave.
Together the three women started a bipartisan group whose negotiating framework formed the centerpiece of a tentative Senate deal nearing completion Monday
to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown, while the rest of the world braced for the possibility of a U.S. default that could set off a global financial disaster.
Negotiators talked into the evening as senators from both parties coalesced around a plan that would lift the debt limit through Feb. 7, adopt a resolution to finance the government through Jan. 15 and conclude formal discussions on a long-term tax and spending plan no later than Dec. 13, according to one Senate aide briefed on the plan.
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But while both Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, praised the progress that was made in the Senate, it was already clear that the most conservative members of the House were not going to go along quietly with a plan that does not accomplish their goal from the outset of this two-week crisis: dismantling the president’s health-care law.
“We’ve got a name for it in the House: It’s called the Senate surrender caucus,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.”
The Senate could vote on an agreement as soon as Wednesday if Reid and McConnell discuss the deal with their members Tuesday. That would leave little time for the House to debate and vote on what will be a contentious measure.
In a Senate still dominated by men, women on both sides of the partisan divide proved to be the driving forces that shaped a negotiated settlement. The three Republican women put aside threats from the right to advance the interests of their shutdown-weary states and asserted their own political independence.
“I probably will have retribution in my state,” Murkowski said. “That’s fine. That doesn’t bother me at all. If there is backlash, hey, that’s what goes on in D.C., but in the meantime there is a government that is shut down. There are people who are really hurting.”
Two powerful women on the Democratic side of the aisle — Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Patty Murray of Washington — took a hard line and pressed their Republican counterparts to temper their demands, but they also offered crucial points of compromise.
Together, the five senators starkly showed off the increasing power of women — even those who are not on the relevant committees — as their numbers grow in the upper chamber. Of the 13 senators on a bipartisan committee who worked on the deal framework, about half were women, even though women make up only 20 percent of the Senate. Sen. John McCain of Arizona joked at several points in their meetings, “The women are taking over.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III, Collins’ first Democratic collaborator, said: “That gender mix was great. It helped tremendously.” He added: “Would it have worked as well if it had been 12 women or 12 men? I can’t say for sure, but it worked pretty well with what we had.”
The women are hardly in lock step politically. But their practice of meeting regularly and working on smaller bills together, even in a highly polarized Congress, set the stage for more significant legislation. Ayotte and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., hosted an informal get-together for women in the Senate on Oct. 7.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women were so heavily involved in trying to end this stalemate,” Collins said. “Although we span the ideological spectrum, we are used to working together in a collaborative way.”
The Republican women involved in the compromise represented three of their party’s four female members. (Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska did not participate.) The bipartisan negotiating group included three Democratic senators as well: Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Shaheen. The strongest Democratic voices counseling a hard line were also women.
Murray is chairwoman of the Budget Committee and would have primary responsibility for turning any broad agreement into a detailed plan for tax and spending policy over the next decade. Mikulski, who leads the powerful Appropriations Committee, has been the most forceful voice in efforts to blunt the impact of future budget cuts.
“Patty and I were emailing all weekend,” Collins said. “I was not off the phone for longer than 20 minutes yesterday.”
It was Murray who suggested language ordering an immediate start to budget talks. That language tempered Democratic concerns that the emerging deal would lock in across-the-board spending cuts for next year.
The leader of the Republican trio, Collins, has emerged as the most powerful moderate in the Senate, as the only Republican vote on several high-profile Democratic bills and the must-have Republican.
Murkowski has been nursing wounds since the Republican establishment abandoned her in the wake of her defeat by a tea-party candidate in the 2010 primary. She won as a write-in candidate and has seized the chance to assert her independence.
“Politics be damned,” she said Monday.
If a deal is not finalized by the end of the day Thursday, Treasury officials have said, the U.S. government will have exhausted “extraordinary measures” for managing its debt, meaning that its ability to pay its bills will be limited to the uneven flow of cash that comes into the Treasury on a daily basis.
Investors Monday reacted in tandem with the real-time reports of halting progress, with stocks falling in the morning before drifting into positive territory by the end of the day in response to reports of a possible deal in the Senate. At the same time, asset managers and banks began taking steps to be ready if the Treasury Department is unable to pay back its short-term debt on time. And world leaders expressed concern about the impact on their countries.
Chinese leaders called on a “befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.” In a commentary Sunday, the state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua blamed “cyclical stagnation in Washington” for leaving the dollar-based assets of many nations in jeopardy. It said the “international community is highly agonized.”