A partial government shutdown enters its fifth day, with Congress convening for a session that promises no progress in breaking the impasse but will at least offer back pay to furloughed federal workers.
The GOP House is scheduled Saturday to vote on legislation backed by the White House and congressional Democrats that would make sure the 800,000 sidelined government employees would get their pay when the shutdown ends. The Senate is expected to clear it later, even as early as Saturday, for President Barack Obama’s signature.
Lawmakers keep replaying the same script on Capitol Hill: House Republicans under Speaker John Boehner pass piecemeal bills to reopen popular and politically sensitive programs — on Friday, disaster relief and food aid for the poor — while Democrats insist that the House vote on a straightforward Senate-passed measure to reopen all of government.
“The only thing standing between this Congress and an open government is Speaker Boehner’s refusal to allow a vote on a clean continuing resolution,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Friday.
There seemed little chance of that. For one thing, flinching by either side on the shutdown might be seen as weakening one’s hand in an even more important fight looming just over the horizon as the combatants in Washington increasingly shifted their focus to a midmonth deadline for averting a first-ever default.
“This isn’t some damn game,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said 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. Republicans pointed to a quote in The Wall Street Journal from an anonymous White House official that “we are winning … It doesn’t really matter to us” how long the shutdown lasts.
At issue in the shutdown is a temporary funding measure to keep the government fully open through mid-November or mid-December. More than 100 stopgap continuing resolutions have passed without much difficulty since the last shutdown in 1996. But tea party Republicans, their urgency intensified by the rollout of health insurance marketplaces this month, are demanding concessions in Obama’s health care law as their price for the funding legislation, sparking the shutdown impasse with Democrats.
“The American people don’t want their government shut down and neither do I,” Boehner said. “All we’re asking for is to sit down and have a discussion and to bring fairness — reopen the government and bring fairness to the American people under Obamacare. It’s as simple as that. But it all has to begin with a simple discussion.”
Obama has repeatedly said he won’t negotiate on the temporary spending bill or upcoming debt limit measure, arguing they should be sent to him free of GOP add-ons. Congress, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, routinely sent Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, “clean” stopgap spending bills and debt-limit increases.
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., and other Democrats blocked numerous attempts by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, 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 House 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.”
The shutdown led 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.
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 the “Defund Obamacare” movement that Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and tea party groups generated over the summer.