White House to Dems: ‘Focus on economy, not healthcare’

President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Eager to draw contrasts with Republicans, the White House is pushing its economic agenda as it attempts to give Democrats something to talk about other than the troubled health care rollout.

The White House is deploying Vice President Joe Biden and Cabinet members across the country, drawing attention to improvements in the still sluggish economic recovery and detailing the costs of last month’s partial government shutdown.

On Tuesday, Obama will address the economy during a visit to the DreamWorks film studios in Glendale, Calif., and next month he plans to host a summit of college presidents and business leaders to push for more college access for disadvantaged students.

The offensive comes as Republicans plan a continuing assault on the health care law by building an anecdote-based indictment of the Affordable Care Act as it goes through its critical enrollment period.

To buttress its case, the White House on Friday was giving congressional Democrats a polling memo prepared by Obama pollster Joel Benenson that argued that despite weeks of headlines devoted to the botched health care website, to NSA spying activities and Syria’s chemical weapons, the top priority with voters remains the economy.

The White House message to Democrats is to focus on what they perceive as a key Republican vulnerability.

“The shutdown helped to cement a view of Republicans we have seen gathering pace throughout the year: That they are so focused on undermining the president they are risking our economic progress to make him look bad,” Benenson’s memo says.

Still, public opinion polls by several large news organizations show that Obama’s standing with the public has also suffered, particularly in the midst of the health care enrollment slowdown and his unfulfilled pledge that all Americans covered by insurance could keep their policies if they liked them.

Obama’s handling of the economy also polls poorly, a likely factor in the White House’s efforts to raise the economy’s profile and press for greater access to college for disadvantaged young people and to promote its support for an increase in the minimum wage.

Even in promoting the health care law, the White House this week drew attention to what it said were its economic benefits, pointing to data that show health care costs are rising at slower rates.

The White House is trying to reassure Democrats that it remains focused on resolving the problems with the health care law.

But it’s urging them to turn their attention to issues important to families, like jobs, education and wages, “and not getting caught up in inside-the-beltway political dramas that have little bearing on their immediate wellbeing,” Benenson’s memo says.

Republicans, meanwhile, have developed their own “playbook,” that calls on lawmakers to find anecdotes that illustrate problems with the health care law and to use social media, videos and flyers to distribute them to voters.

The 13-page memo devised by the House Republican leadership contains talking points, a fact sheet and examples of messaging designed to build opposition to the health care law.

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Democrats mad at low turnout, broken promises of Obamacare

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: Lots of explaining to do. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: Lots of explaining to do.
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Add simmering Democratic discontent to the problems plaguing “Obamacare,” now that first-month enrollment figures are out.

The White House is rushing to come up with an unspecified fix as early as this week to counter the millions of health coverage cancellations going to consumers, at the same time it promises improvements in a federal website so balky that enrollments totaled fewer than 27,000 in 36 states combined.

The White House also is taking a more open approach to changes in the law itself. “We welcome sincere efforts,” presidential press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday at the White House as Democratic impatience grew over a program likely to be at the center of next year’s midterm elections for control of Congress.

After weeks of highly publicized technical woes, the administration had said in advance the enrollment numbers would fall far short of initial expectations.

They did, easily.

A paltry 26,794 people enrolled for health insurance during the first, flawed month of operations for the federal “Obamacare” website.

Adding in enrollment of more than 79,000 in the 14 states with their own websites, the nationwide number of 106,000 October sign-ups was barely one-fifth of what officials had projected — and a small fraction of the millions who have received private coverage cancellations as a result of the federal law.

The administration said an additional 1 million people have been found eligible to buy coverage in the markets, with about one-third qualifying for tax credits to reduce their premiums. Another 396,000 have been found eligible for Medicaid, which covers low-income people.

Republicans were unmoved.

“Even with the administration’s Enron-like accounting, fewer people have signed up for Obamacare nationwide than the 280,000 who’ve already lost their plan in Kentucky as a result of Obamacare mandates,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said.

Administration officials and senior congressional Democrats expressed confidence in the program’s future. “We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is in overall charge.

“Even with the issues we’ve had, the marketplace is working and people are enrolling,” she added.

Despite the expressions, the White House raced to reassure anxious Democrats who are worried about the controversial program, which they voted into existence three years ago over Republican opposition as strong now as it was then.

Senate Democrats arranged a closed-door meeting for midday Thursday in the Capitol with White House officials, who held a similar session Wednesday with the House rank and file.

So far, five Senate Democrats are on record in support of legislation by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to make sure everyone can keep their present coverage if they want to. The bill would require insurance companies to continue offering existing policies, even if they fall short of minimum coverage requirements in the law.

The measure has little apparent chance at passage, given that it imposes a new mandate on the insurance industry that Republicans will be reluctant to accept.

At the same time, a vote would at least permit Democrats to say they have voted to repair some of the problems associated with the Affordable Care Act, as many appear eager to do.

In a statement, Landrieu said Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas were now supporting the legislation, as is Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. All but Feinstein are on the ballot next year.

Across the Capitol, majority Republicans in the House set a vote for Friday on legislation to permit insurance companies to continue selling existing policies that have been ordered scrapped because they fall short of coverage standards in the law.

While House passage of the measure is assured, each Democrat will be forced to cast a vote on the future of a program that Republicans have vowed to place at the center of next year’s campaign.

The promise of keeping coverage was Obama’s oft-stated pledge when the legislation was under consideration, a calling card since shredded by the millions of cancellations mailed out by insurers.

Obama apologized last week for the broken promise, but aides said at the time the White House was only considering administration changes, rather than new legislation.

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Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Julie Pace contributed to this report.
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Make government shutdowns illegal? A tough sale

Yosemite Park Ranger Ron Morton takes payment for admittance after park reopened. (AP/Gary Kazanjian)
Yosemite Park Ranger Ron Morton takes payment for admittance after park reopened.
(AP/Gary Kazanjian)

There is a way to prevent government shutdowns. A change in U.S. law would keep federal workers on the job and ensure that treasured sites like the Statue of Liberty and Yosemite stay open during a budget fight, instead of becoming political pawns.

The idea’s been around for three decades, but even after a 16-day shutdown that cost billions of dollars and outraged voters, it’s a tough sell in Washington.

Why? Without the risk of a shutdown, there’s no telling how long politicians might put off making hard budget decisions.

The United States could end up with government by autopilot.

Even those who say an anti-shutdown law could avoid that trap find it tricky to come up with a plan that’s acceptable to the various factions locked in budget gridlock these days.

Nevertheless, a prominent fiscal conservative in the Senate is reviving the idea as lawmakers seek a budget deal to head off the risk of another shutdown in January. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, will use his spot on the House-Senate negotiating team to push his shutdown prevention measure, said his spokeswoman Caitlin Dunn.

“It’s appealing to take the risk of shutdown off the table,” said Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group seeking to curb the national debt. “But it has its risks.”

Money to fund the federal government is appropriated each fiscal year, but Congress almost never finishes its regular appropriations bills on time. The usual solution is to approve “continuing resolutions” that let agencies keep going at current spending levels. Without spending power, they must send workers home.

Shutdowns are so disruptive and unpopular that politicians have rarely resorted to them. This month’s was the first in 17 years. While many operations of government shut down, the closing of national parks is one of the disruptions most visible to the public. Parks were shut down from the museums and monuments along the National Mall to the Statue of Liberty to popular getaways like the Rocky Mountain National Park, prompting angry public reactions.

Trying to eliminate the risk of a shutdown could create persistent new troubles, however.

“If funding for the previous year never actually expires, their motivation to pass an appropriations bill would be lower,” Goldwein said. If lawmakers shirk their duty to adjust spending to reflect the nation’s changing needs, he said, “It would be bad for the country.”

Portman, a former White House budget director in the George W. Bush administration, wants to goad lawmakers to finish their overdue work by cutting spending as time goes by.

If lawmakers miss their Oct. 1 appropriations deadlines, agencies would stay at last year’s spending level for 120 days. After that, spending would drop by 1 percent for every 90 days that go by.

Senate Democrats rejected that plan by a nearly party-line vote in January, although Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is a co-sponsor. Portman is also getting resistance from some conservatives who don’t want to lose the shutdown leverage embraced by tea partyers.

Shutdowns didn’t become a political tactic until 1980, when the Carter administration took a closer look at a decades-old budget law and realized that it requires agencies to send all but the most critical workers home if their funding lapses. The comptroller general recommended that Congress fix the problem back in 1981.

Lawmakers tried many times but only came close once, after the budget showdown in the winter of 1995-96.

The Republican-controlled Congress, branded with most of the blame for two shutdowns, attached a shutdown prevention measure to a flood relief bill. But their plan was anathema to Democrats — it would have kept agencies open but imposed a 2 percent budget cut.

Democratic President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill because it would let Republicans cut spending by failing to act.

Depending how they’re designed, automatic funding schemes can create an incentive for either budget cutters or defenders of the status quo to block spending bills because they prefer the default option. Richard Kogan of the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls that “governing by paralysis.”

“It would make government less responsive than it already is,” Kogan said. “That’s got to be a bad thing.”

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Follow Connie Cass on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ConnieCass

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Obama healthcare rollout debacle worries House Dems

Well, Congress got some help.
Well, Congress got some help.

House Democrats are worried about persistent problems with the rollout of President Barack Obama’s health care law — and one says the president needs to “man up” and fire those responsible.

Rep. Richard Nolan, Democrat of Minnesota, emerged from a Wednesday meeting with administration officials on Capitol Hill and told reporters the rollout has “damaged the brand” of the health care law.

Democrats facing re-election in 2014 were hoping to run on the law’s new benefits for millions of uninsured Americans. Instead, a litany of computer problems is keeping consumers from signing up and buying insurance on the health care exchanges.

Nolan said, “The president needs to man up, find out who was responsible, and fire them.” He did not name anyone.

Obama says he’s as frustrated as anyone and has promised a “tech surge” to fix the balky HealthCare.gov website.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters that “the whole threat of Obamacare” continues “to hang over our economy like a wet blanket.”

“More Americans are going to lose their health insurance than are going to sign up at these exchanges,” Boehner said.

Obama has turned to longtime adviser Jeffrey Zients to provide management advice to help fix the system. Zients, a former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget and a veteran management consultant, will be on a short-term assignment at HHS before he’s due to take over as director of Obama’s National Economic Council next year.

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Even with problems, President says ‘stick with Obamacare’

An Obamacare supporter
An Obamacare supporter

The Obama administration is appealing to its allies in Congress, on Wall Street and across the country to stick with President Barack Obama’s health care law even as embarrassing problems with the flagship website continue to mount.

The website’s troubled debut was overshadowed by the partial government shutdown that started the same day the website went live. Last week, Obama and Democrats walked away from a no-holds-barred fight with Republicans over debt and spending with a remarkable degree of unity, made all the more prominent by the deep GOP divisions the standoff revealed.

The debt-and-spending crisis averted for now, the spotlight has shifted to Obama’s health care law and the web-based exchanges, beset by malfunctions, where Americans are supposed to be able to shop for insurance. The intensified focus has increased the pressure on Democrats to distance themselves from Obama’s handling of the website’s rollout as both parties demand to know what went wrong and why.

As the administration races to fix the website, it’s deploying the president and top officials to urge his supporters not to give up.

“By now you have probably heard that the website has not worked as smoothly as it was supposed to,” Obama said Tuesday in a video message recorded for Organizing for America, a nonprofit group whose mission is to support Obama’s agenda. “But we’ve got people working overtime in a tech surge to boost capacity and address the problems. And we are going to get it fixed.”

Whether through the website or other, lower-tech means, the administration needs millions of Americans to sign up through the exchanges for the law to succeed. While the website has become an easily maligned symbol of a law that Republicans despise, Obama said it’s important Americans realize that “Obamacare,” with its various patient protections, is much more.

“That’s why I need your help,” Obama told OFA’s supporters.

The group has been organizing a multitude of events and social media campaigns around the health care law’s implementation. OFA said those efforts will continue, but the group isn’t adjusting its strategy in response to the website’s issues.

Obama has turned to longtime adviser Jeffrey Zients to provide management advice to help fix the system. Zients, a former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget and a veteran management consultant, will be on a short-term assignment at the Health and Human Services Department before he’s due to take over as director of Obama’s National Economic Council next year.

Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden and top White House officials held a call with business leaders Tuesday about the health law and other issues. Business Forward, a trade group friendly to the White House, said the administration asked the group to invite leaders to hear directly from Biden.

In Congress, even staunch supporters of the law like House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip, have said the website’s rollout was unacceptable. In a potentially worrying sign for Obama, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., is calling for the White House to extend the open-enrollment period past March 31 in light of the glitches.

On Wednesday, the administration is sending Mike Hash, who runs the health reform office at HHS, to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on the law’s implementation.

An invitation to the breakfast meeting obtained by The Associated Press says it’s restricted to members of Congress. But only Democrats were invited to that session, prompting protest from House Speaker John Boehner, whose spokesman called it a “snub” and said the administration should brief House Republicans, too, in the name of transparency and accountability. Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for HHS, said officials would be happy to honor additional briefing requests.

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Reach Josh Lederman at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

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Budget, debt debacle shows Obama is a weakling with Congress

President Barack Obama: Strong, he's not.
President Barack Obama: Strong, he’s not.

Despite his win last week in a debt ceiling standoff with Republicans, President Barack Obama has limited ability to achieve his policy goals through legislation, which could result in increased use of executive powers, administration officials and Democratic strategists said.

The 16-day partial government shutdown highlighted Obama’s challenges in basic governing. Although he refused to concede to Republicans in exchange for reopening the government and raising the U.S. borrowing limit, he could not block the emergence of what he called a “manufactured” crisis.

The president would now like to seize momentum to push forward three legislative priorities: the farm bill, immigration reform and a more lasting budget deal.

But his chances of progress on those issues, particularly immigration reform, depend on convincing embittered Republicans to work with a White House many of them detest. That leaves Obama more or less at the same strategic juncture he encountered before the shutdown began.

“His only play is to just keep being consistent about trying to find ways for bipartisan cooperation on the things that need congressional action and then try to continue what he’s been doing for years now … and that’s looking for ways to move the ball through executive action,” a senior White House official told Reuters.

“In that sense, nothing has changed in our approach except that we and the whole town had to burn however many weeks on this detour – which is a shame.”

Already this year, Obama has relied on executive actions to enact climate change and gun control policies that had weak congressional support. He could use the same authority to bypass lawmakers on other regulatory questions.

But that strategy has limits. Some of the administration’s climate rules are being challenged at the Supreme Court, and Obama still needs Congress to enact the major reforms that his advisers hope will define his legacy.

“Obama did himself no favors when it comes to his own policy priorities,” said an aide to John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.

“His refusal to negotiate in good faith makes it difficult for our members to work with him on other big priorities. Immigration reform, already a huge task, looks even tougher.”

The error-filled rollout of Obama’s signature healthcare program hurts his ability to focus on other domestic policy goals as well. Republicans plan to hammer the administration in coming weeks over flaws that have prevented people from signing up for health insurance through new exchanges.

House Republican efforts to delay or defund the healthcare law, popularly known as Obamacare, triggered the partial government shutdown.

BUILDING COALITIONS

Lawmakers’ votes on Wednesday to prevent the United States from going into default showed a narrow pathway to finding bipartisan support.

The Democratic-led Senate passed the measure to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling on an 81-18 vote, while the Republican-controlled House passed it 285-144.

That vote tally – 87 House Republicans supported the bill – combined with rock-solid unity among Democratic lawmakers, gives Obama’s allies hope he can build other coalitions.

“I will look for willing partners wherever I can to get important work done,” the president said on Thursday. “And there’s no good reason why we can’t govern responsibly, despite our differences, without lurching from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis.”

The first test of whether lawmakers can avert another crisis comes as a bipartisan panel considers a plan, due by December 13, to reduce the deficit. Under the compromise forged last week, the government would be funded through January 15 and the debt ceiling lifted through February 7.

That tight time frame does not allow much room for the president’s other policy priorities to gain traction.

Democrats believe, however, that Obama’s bargaining hand may be strengthened by the thrashing Republicans took in opinion polls over their handling of the shutdown.

“This shutdown re-emphasized the overwhelming public demand for compromise and negotiation. And that may open up a window,” said Ben LaBolt, Obama’s 2012 campaign spokesman and a former White House aide.

“There’s no doubt that some Republican members (of Congress) are going to oppose policies just because the president’s for it. But the hand of those members was significantly weakened.”

If he does have an upper hand, Obama is likely to apply it to immigration reform. The White House had hoped to have a bill concluded by the end of the summer. A Senate version passed with bipartisan support earlier this year but has languished in the Republican-controlled House.

“It will be hard to move anything forward, unless the Republicans find the political pain of obstructionism too much to bear,” said Doug Hattaway, a Democratic strategist and an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

“That may be the case with immigration – they’ll face pressure from business and Latinos to advance immigration reform,” he said.

A White House official said Obama’s options for using executive action to advance immigration reform were largely exhausted. Last year, his administration relaxed deportation rules for children who came to the United States illegally with their parents. The move helped boost his support among Hispanics, a key voting bloc, in last November’s election.

If a package of immigration measures does not move soon, Democrats hope the results will show up in Republican defeats in next year’s congressional elections. If Democrats regain control of the House, the way could be smoothed for comprehensive immigration reform in the second half of Obama’s final term.

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Copyright  © 2013 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.

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‘Throw the bums out!’ Americans dislke what they see in Washington

A sign on a residential street in America may say it all.
A sign on a residential street in America may say it all.

Americans are finding little they like about President Barack Obama or either political party, according to a new poll that suggests the possibility of a “throw the bums out” mentality in next year’s midterm elections.

The AP-GfK poll finds few people approve of the way the president is handling most major issues and most people say he’s not decisive, strong, honest, reasonable or inspiring.

In the midst of the government shutdown and Washington gridlock, the president is faring much better than his party, with large majorities of those surveyed finding little positive to say about Democrats. The negatives are even higher for the Republicans across the board, with 4 out of 5 people describing the GOP as unlikeable and dishonest and not compassionate, refreshing, inspiring or innovative.

Negativity historically hurts the party in power — particularly when it occurs in the second term of a presidency — but this round seems to be hitting everyone. More people now say they see bigger differences between the two parties than before Obama was elected, yet few like what either side is offering. A big unknown: possible fallout from the unresolved budget battle in Washington.

The numbers offer warning signs for every incumbent lawmaker, and if these angry sentiments stretch into next year, the 2014 elections could feel much like the 2006 and 2010 midterms when being affiliated with Washington was considered toxic by many voters. In 2006, voters booted Republicans from power in the House and Senate, and in 2010, they fired Democrats who had been controlling the House.

“There needs to be a major change,” said Pam Morrison, 56, of Lincoln, Neb., among those who were surveyed. “I’m anxious for the next election to see what kind of new blood we can get.”

Morrison describes herself as a conservative Republican and said she is very concerned about how her adult children are going to afford insurance under Obama’s health care law. She places most of the blame for the shutdown on the president, but she also disapproves of the job Congress is doing. “I don’t think they’re working together,” Morrison said.

“Congress needs to take a look at their salaries, they need to take a cut to their salaries and they need to feel some of the pain the American people are feeling,” said Morrison, who is married to a government worker who she said has been deemed essential and is still on the job.

People across the political spectrum voiced disappointment.

Suzanne Orme, a 74-year-old retiree and self-described liberal who lives in California’s Silicon Valley, says the shutdown is more the Republican Party’s fault. “The Republicans seem to be a bunch of morons who aren’t going to give in for anything. I just don’t get it with them. They are just crazy,” she said.

But she also said she strongly disapproves of the way Obama is handling his job, and doesn’t find him likable, decisive, strong, honest, compassionate, refreshing, ethical, inspiring or reasonable. The only positive attribute she gave him was innovative.

“It sounds like he’s kind of weak. He says one thing and does another,” Orme said after taking the survey. For example, she said Obama hasn’t made good on his promise to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and changed his position on whether people should be penalized for failing to get health insurance.

“I voted for him, and he’s turned out to be a big disappointment,” she said. “I mean, what’s the alternative?” Orme said it just seems to her that Washington is run by lobbyists and consumed by financial greed.

A bad sign for Democrats is that Obama has bled support among independents — 60 percent disapprove of the way Obama is handling his job, while only 16 percent approve. As he began his second term in January, independents tilted positive, 48 percent approved and 39 percent disapproved.

Neither party can win without the support of independents, with only about a third of the poll’s respondents identifying themselves as Democrats and about a quarter as Republicans.

Obama has held onto support from Carol Cox, a 59-year-old independent from Hartville, Ohio, who says she feels the president helps people in need. She is happy to see his health care law that offers coverage to the uninsured and to people with pre-existing conditions, although she thinks the rollout could have been better. “I think he’s doing an OK job,” she said of the president.

But she is not happy with either party in Congress. She said the shutdown is affecting her family’s investments and she’s concerned about the future of Social Security. “I’m really angry and frustrated. I can’t believe how mad I am about this.”

As for next year’s congressional election, she said, “I would love to see just a total turnover.”

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Oct. 3-7, 2013, using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel. It involved online interviews with 1,227 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents.

The survey was designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Respondents to the survey were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and later interviewed online. Those who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to get online at no cost.

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News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler and Jennifer Agiesta at http://twitter.com/JennAgiesta

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Online: AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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No end in sight for politically-driven government shutdown

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) smiles as he leaves the House floor on Friday. (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite)
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) smiles as he leaves the House floor on Friday.
(AP Photo/Scott Applewhite)

Prospects for a swift end to the 4-day-old partial government shutdown all but vanished Friday 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 ten days,” he said.

Reid and other Democrats blocked numerous attempts by Sen. Ted Cruz, a leading architect of the “defund Obamacare” strategy, to approve House-passed bills reopening portions of the government.

The Texas Republican said repeatedly Obama and Democrats were to blame for the impasse.

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 arranged to vote on legislation providing funds for disaster assistance, then for the Women’s, Infants and Children nutrition program.

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.

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.”

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Associated Press reporters Alan Fram, Henry C. Jackson, Stephen Ohlemacher, Charles Babington, Donna Cassata and Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

 

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No progress towards ending shutdown stalemate

With the federal government out of money and out of time, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., center, meets with House GOP conferees. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
With the federal government out of money and out of time, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., center, meets with House GOP conferees. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The political stare-down on Capitol Hill shows no signs of easing, leaving federal government functions — from informational websites, to national parks, to processing veterans’ claims — in limbo from coast to coast. Lawmakers in both parties ominously suggested the partial shutdown might last for weeks.

A funding cutoff for much of the government began Tuesday as a Republican effort to kill or delay the nation’s health care law stalled action on a short-term, traditionally routine spending bill. Republicans pivoted to a strategy to try to reopen the government piecemeal but were unable to immediately advance the idea in the House.

National parks like Yellowstone and Alcatraz Island were shuttered, government websites went dark and hundreds of thousands of nonessential workers reported for a half-day to fill out time cards, hand in their government cellphones and laptops, and change voicemail messages to gird for a deepening shutdown.

The Defense Department said it wasn’t clear that service academies would be able to participate in sports, putting Saturday’s Army vs. Boston College and Air Force vs. Navy football games on hold, with a decision to be made Thursday.

Even as many government agencies closed their doors, health insurance exchanges that are at the core of President Barack Obama’s health care law were up and running, taking applications for coverage that would start Jan. 1.

“Shutting down our government doesn’t accomplish their stated goal,” Obama said of his Republican opponents at a Rose Garden event hailing implementation of the law. “The Affordable Care Act is a law that passed the House; it passed the Senate. The Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. It was a central issue in last year’s election. It is settled, and it is here to stay. And because of its funding sources, it’s not impacted by a government shutdown.”

GOP leaders faulted the Senate for killing a House request to open official negotiations on the temporary spending bill. Senate Democrats led by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada insist that Republicans give in and pass their simple, straightforward temporary funding bill, known as a continuing resolution.

“None of us want to be in a shutdown. And we’re here to say to the Senate Democrats, ‘Come and talk to us,'” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said as GOP lawmakers designated to negotiate the shutdown legislation met among themselves before cameras and reporters. “At each and every turn, the Senate Democrats refused to even discuss these proposals.”

Late Tuesday, House Republicans sought passage of legislation aimed at reopening small slices of the government. The bills covered the national parks, the Veterans Affairs Department and city services in Washington, D.C., such as garbage collection funded with local tax revenues.

The move presented Democrats with politically challenging votes but they rejected the idea, saying it was unfair to pick winners and losers as federal employees worked without a guarantee of getting paid and the effects of the partial shutdown rippled through the country and the economy. The White House promised a veto.

Since the measures were brought before the House under expedited procedures requiring a two-thirds vote to pass, House Democrats scuttled them, despite an impassioned plea by Democratic D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who recalled that in the last shutdown 17 years ago she prevailed on House Speaker Newt Gingrich to win an exemption to keep the D.C. government running.

“I must support this piecemeal approach,” Norton said. “What would you do if your local budget was here?”

But other Democrats said Republicans shouldn’t be permitted to choose which agencies should open and which remain shut.

“This piecemeal approach will only prolong a shutdown,” Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said.

Republicans said there could be more votes Wednesday, perhaps to allow the National Institutes of Health to continue pediatric cancer research. The NIH’s famed hospital of last resort wasn’t admitting new patients because of the shutdown. Dr. Francis Collins, agency director, estimated that each week the shutdown lasts would force the facility to turn away about 200 patients, 30 of them children, who want to enroll in studies of experimental treatments. Patients already at the hospital are permitted to stay.

Republicans also said the House may vote anew on the three measures that failed Tuesday, this time under normal rules requiring a simple majority to pass.

Republicans hoped such votes would create pressure on Democrats to drop their insistence that they won’t negotiate on the spending bill or an even more important subsequent measure, required in a couple of weeks or so, to increase the government’s borrowing limit.

There were suggestions from leaders in both parties that the shutdown could last for weeks and grow to encompass the measure to increase the debt limit. “This is now all together,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.

“It’s untenable not to negotiate,” House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said. “I’ve always believed it was the debt limit that would be the forcing action.”

While GOP leaders seemed determined to press on, some Republicans conceded they might bear the brunt of any public anger over the shutdown — and seemed resigned to an eventual surrender in their latest bruising struggle with Obama.

Democrats have “all the leverage and we’ve got none,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said.

Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia said it was time to pass legislation reopening the government without any health care impediments.

“The shutdown is hurting my district — including the military and the hardworking men and women who have been furloughed due to the defense sequester,” he said.

But that was far from the majority view among House Republicans, where tea party-aligned lawmakers prevailed more than a week ago on a reluctant leadership to link federal funding legislation to the health care law. In fact, some conservatives fretted the GOP had already given in too much.
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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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