President Barack Obama brought congressional leaders to the White House on Wednesday for the first time since a partial government shutdown began, but there were no signs of progress toward ending an impasse that has idled 800,000 federal workers and curbed services around the country.
Obama “refuses to negotiate,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio., told reporters after private talks that lasted more than an hour. “All we’re asking for here is a discussion and fairness for the American people under Obamacare.”
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said moments later, “We’re locked in tight on Obamacare” and neither the president nor Democrats will accept changes in the nation’s three-year-old health care law as the price for spending legislation needed to end the two-day partial shutdown.
With the nation’s ability to borrow money soon to lapse, Republicans and Democrats alike said the shutdown could last for two weeks or more, and soon oblige a divided government to grapple with both economy-threatening issues at the same time.
The high-level bickering at microphones set up outside the White House reflected the day’s proceedings in the Capitol.
The Republican-controlled House approved legislation to reopen the nation’s parks and the National Institutes of Health, even though many Democrats criticized them as part of a piecemeal approach that fell far short of what was needed. The bills face dim prospects in the Senate, and the White House threatened to veto both in the unlikely event they make it to Obama’s desk.
“What we’re trying to do is to get the government open as quickly as possible,” said the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. “And all that it would take is us realizing we have a lot in agreement.”
An attempt by Democrats to force shutdown-ending legislation to the House floor failed on a 227-197 vote, with all Republicans in opposition. That left intact the tea party-driven strategy of demanding changes to the nation’s health care overhaul as the price for essential federal financing, Despite grumbling from Republican moderates.
Democrats were scathing in their criticism.
“The American people would get better government out of Monkey Island at the local zoo than we’re giving them today,” said Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.
The stock market ended lower as Wall Street CEOs, Europe’s central banker and traders pressed for a solution before serious damage is done to the economy. Chief executives from the nation’s biggest financial firms met Obama for more than an hour Wednesday, some of them plainly frustrated with the tactics at play in Congress and with the potential showdown coming over the debt limit.
“You can re-litigate these policy issues in a political forum, but we shouldn’t use threats of causing the U.S. to fail on its obligations to repay its debt as a cudgel,” Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, said after the meeting.
The Republican National Committee announced it would pay for personnel needed to reopen the World War II Memorial, a draw for aging veterans from around the country that is among the sites shuttered. In a statement, party chairman Reince Priebus challenged Democrats “to join with us in keeping this memorial open.”
Democrats labeled that a stunt. “We’ve already been working on a plan to open the Memorial – and the entire government – after the GOP caused them to close,” said party spokesman Mo Elleithee. “It’s called a clean” spending bill.
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