President Barack Obama and congressional leaders struggled Wednesday to find a path to ending the shutdown that closed much of the federal government for a second day and threatened to last far longer.
Obama and the four leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate met at the White House for nearly 90 minutes, their first meeting since before the government shutdown. Little progress was apparent and both sides emerged offering the pointed, partisan complaints they had been making through days of the standoff.
“The president reiterated one more time tonight that he will not negotiate,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in terse remarks to reporters after the session.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the meeting “unproductive” and said he was “disappointed” that Obama did not encourage Democrats to appoint a small group of negotiators to hash out a compromise with Republicans, as they have requested.
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Democrats were just as somber but more expansive. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., insisted Boehner only wants to negotiate keeping the government open for a few weeks, rather than talk about a longer term budget. “We’re through playing these little games. It’s all focused on Obamacare, that’s all it’s about,” said Reid, speaking about Republicans’ insistence the Affordable Care Act be diluted or delayed.
The White House meeting also included Vice President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and featured a presentation about the dangers of default – the nation is expected to exhaust its borrowing authority in two weeks. “We should take the debt ceiling debate off the table,” insisted House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Some Republicans are expected to craft a budget package that could reopen the government while increasing the debt limit.
Even before the leaders arrived at the White House, Obama’s aides made clear that the president would not negotiate until after Republicans agreed to reopen the government at current spending levels.
“He’s not going to engage in that kind of negotiation because he does not want to hold – or have held the openness of the government, the functioning of the government, or the world and American economy hostage to a series of demands,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
The impasse has caused the first government shutdown in 17 years, with no end in sight. With the debt limit needing an increase by Oct. 17, Capitol lawmakers have suggested the budget and debt limit talks be merged. But Obama has said repeatedly Congress should raise the debt ceiling, and that he will not negotiate on the issue.
Reid offered one way forward, saying he was willing to engage in negotiations over a long-term budget plan if Boehner allowed the House of Representatives to vote on a government funding plan with no strings.
Reid and Boehner spoke earlier Wednesday, and Reid described the conversation as “cordial.” Boehner, though, was unenthusiastic about Reid’s idea, and hours later, House Republicans gathered on the Capitol steps to protest the closing of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall.
House Republicans, who control that chamber, also continued their futile effort to open parts of the government.
They spent the day debating bills to fund the National Park Service, the National Guard, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the District of Columbia, knowing they’d go nowhere in the Democratic-led Senate.
Obama remained opposed to the House’s piecemeal approach to funding the government, even though the president signed a bill into law earlier this week that would pay U.S. troops around the globe during the shutdown.
While the rhetoric sizzled, leaders were making behind-the-scenes bids to find common ground. Reid sent Boehner a one-page letter recalling how he backed President George W. Bush 11 years ago when Bush sought authority to invade Iraq.
“I could have taken the steps that you are taking now to block government funding in order to gain leverage to end the war,” Reid told Boehner. “But I did not do that. I felt it would have been devastating to America.”
Put the “clean” budget, funding the federal government temporarily, to a House vote, Reid said, and “I commit to name conferees to a budget conference as soon as the government reopens.”
Such a conference, or negotiation, would include top congressional budget-writers, who would try to work out a longer-term spending and tax plan.
Boehner’s camp had an icy response. “Offering to negotiate only after Democrats get everything they want is not much of an offer,” said spokesman Michael Steel.
Carney said Obama remains willing to negotiate on the budget and the health care law but not until Republicans agree to reopen the government and pay its bills with the higher debt ceiling.
“Today’s meeting is about the need to open the government, and the need to ensure that we do not default,” he said.
“And the president’s made clear that he will – that he is happy and willing, as he has been all year round, all year long, to engage in serious conversations and negotiations with Republican lawmakers who want to find common ground on our budget challenges – absolutely willing to,” Carney said. “What he is not willing to do is negotiate under the threat of default or under the threat of continuing to shut down the government.”
Obama met with more than a dozen Wall Street bankers, who warned of the consequences of the shutdown and the potential failure to raise the debt ceiling next month.
“There’s a consensus that we shouldn’t do anything that hurts this recovery that’s a little bit shallow, not very well established and is quite vulnerable,” Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, said after the meeting. “The shutdown of the government and particularly a failure to raise the debt ceiling would accomplish that.”
Earlier in the day, Obama canceled two of four stops on an upcoming trip to Asia to return to Washington because of the government shutdown.
The White House announced that Obama called Malaysia Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Philippines President Benigno Aquino on Tuesday night to deliver the news.
The White House hasn’t yet canceled the rest of the trip, with Obama scheduled to leave Washington Saturday night for Asia summits in Indonesia and Brunei.