WASHINGTON >> Prospects for a swift end to the 4-day-old partial government shutdown all but vanished today as lawmakers squabbled into the weekend and increasingly shifted their focus to a midmonth deadline for averting a threatened first-ever default.
“This isn’t some damn game,” said House Speaker John Boehner, as the White House and Democrats held to their position of agreeing to negotiate only after the government is reopened and the $16.7 trillion debt limit raised.
House Republicans appeared to be shifting their demands, de-emphasizing their previous insistence on defunding the health care overhaul in exchange for re-opening the government. Instead, they ramped up calls for cuts in federal benefit programs and future deficits, items that Boehner has said repeatedly will be part of any talks on debt limit legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also said the two issues were linked. “We not only have a shutdown, but we have the full faith and credit of our nation before us in a week or 10 days,” he said.
Reid and other Democrats blocked numerous attempts by Sen. Ted Cruz to approve House-passed bills reopening portions of the government. The Texas Republican is a chief architect of the “Defund Obamacare” strategy and met earlier this week with allies in the House and an aide to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to confer on strategy.
In a lengthy back-and-forth with Reid and other Democrats, Cruz blamed them and the White House for the impasse and accused them of a “my way or the highway” attitude.
But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., likened the Republican strategy to “smashing a piece of crockery with a hammer, gluing two or three bits back together today, a couple more tomorrow, and two or three more the day after that.”
For all the rhetoric, there was no evident urgency about ending the partial shutdown before the weekend.
The Republican-controlled House approved legislation restoring funds for federal disaster relief on a vote of 247-164. Another allowing the resumption of the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program was approved 244-164.
Saturday’s agenda called for passing a bill to assure post-shutdown pay for an estimated 800,000 furloughed federal employees off the job since mid-day Tuesday, then turning off the lights on the House floor until Monday night to allow lawmakers to fly home for two days.
After issuing a string of veto threats against GOP spending bills, the White House did not object to the one to assure pay for furloughed employees.
There was no doubt about the political underpinnings of the struggle. Democrats and most Republicans have assumed the GOP would be hurt by a shutdown, citing the impact of the last episode, in 1996.
But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said of Democrats, “I don’t think they’ve poll tested ‘we won’t negotiate. I think it’s awful for them to say that over and over again.” His words recorded on videotape, he said, “I think if we keep saying we wanted to defund it (the new health care law), we fought for that and now we’re willing to compromise on this we’re going to win this, I think.”
The shutdown caused the White House to scrub a presidential trip to Asia, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics delayed its customary monthly report on joblessness as impacts of the partial shutdown spread.
According to warnings by the administration and Wall Street, failure to raise the debt limit, by contrast, had the potential to destablize financial markets and inflict harm on the economy quickly.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has said that unless Congress acts, the government will be unable to pay all its debts and will run the risk of default. He has urged lawmakers to act by Oct. 17.
Debt limit bills typically pass first in the House, then move to the Senate. So far, neither Boehner nor the rest of the leadership has said when they expect to draft and have a vote on one. More than a week ago, they circulated a list of items that might be included– calls for higher Medicare costs for better-off seniors, a wholesale easing of environmental regulations and approval of the Keystone Pipeline among them.
Republican officials said that in a closed-door session with the rank and file during the day, the speaker renewed his long-standing commitment to seeking reforms and savings from benefit programs to help reduce federal deficits. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss a private meeting.
At the White House, Obama has said repeatedly he will not negotiate over the terms of debt limit legislation but is willing to discuss a range of issues once the government is reopened and the Treasury able to borrow freely again.
The shutdown began Monday at midnight after Republicans demanded the defunding of the nation’s new health insurance system in exchange for providing essential federal funding, and the White House and Democrats refused. Boehner and the House followed up with several other measures to reopen the government, all of them with other health-care-related conditions attached, and each subsequently rejected by Democrats.
In a counter move, Democrats took steps to force a vote by midmonth through a discharge petition, a procedural maneuver that only needs the signatures of a majority of House members and no action by the GOP leadership.
Emerging from their closed-door meeting during the day, several Republicans conceded they are unlikely to achieve that goal as long as Obama is in the White House.
“It’s time to move to fixing the financial problems of this country,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y.
Ironically, Boehner and the leadership more than two weeks ago outlined a strategy that envisioned avoiding a shutdown and instead using the debt limit bill as the arena for a showdown with Obama. Their hope was to win concessions from the White House in exchange for raising the debt limit and agreeing to changes in two rounds of across the board cuts, one that took place in the budget year that ended on Sept. 30 and the other in the 12 months that began the following day.
The strategy was foiled by a “Defund Obamacare” movement that Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and tea party groups generated over the summer.
Despite the discord, there was unity on one front. One day after a car chase ended in gunfire outside the Capitol, lawmakers in both parties wore lapel buttons that read: “Thank You Capitol Police.”
Associated Press reporters Alan Fram, Henry C. Jackson, Stephen Ohlemacher, Charles Babington, Donna Cassata and Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.