U.S. President Barack Obama summoned the four top leaders in Congress to the White House Wednesday evening to discuss the government shutdown, a symbolic move that could ultimately break the stalemate, but one that yielded no immediate results.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner said it was "a nice conversation," and his Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, called the 90-minute meeting "worthwhile."
Yet no one confused politeness with a breakthrough. Mr. Boehner said his offer of a special committee to negotiate a temporary extension of the government's spending authority was rejected.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said he offered Mr. Boehner a chance to discuss any budget issue he wants, but only after Congress agrees to reopen government – and only if the Republicans end their campaign against Mr. Obama's 2010 overhaul of the health-care system.
"We're through playing these little games," Mr. Reid told reporters outside the White House. "We are locked in tight on Obamacare."
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader from Kentucky, also attended the meeting.
Republicans, urged on by the Tea Party faction of hardliners, are determined to use the budget talks to strike a blow against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The President and Democratic lawmakers refuse to budge because the new law, which will allow tens of millions of Americans to purchase health insurance for the first time, is the signature legislative achievement of Mr. Obama's presidency.
Many in Washington say Mr. Boehner is the most important player in the standoff because he could end it at any moment by marginalizing his Tea Party members to pass a spending bill with Democratic support.
There is an increasingly stronger push from within his ranks to do just that. Various news organizations put the number of House Republicans who are publicly calling on Mr. Boehner to concede at 15, about half the size of the Tea Party caucus but more than earlier this week. Members of the breakaway group say their numbers will grow.
"I do believe there is momentum in that direction," Scott Rigell, a Republican from Virginia, told National Public Radio Wednesday.
Representative Peter King of New York told Bloomberg News that he pressed the issue in a private meeting with Mr. Boehner and that the Speaker asked him for time. "I think the plan is for the Cruz Republicans to exhaust themselves," Mr. King said, referring to Texas Senator Ted Cruz, one of the leaders of the Tea Party assault on the health-care law.
The shutdown – a cessation of all non-essential services that puts some 800,000 federal workers on unpaid furlough – is entering its third day Thursday because politicians faced no significant pressure to end it. Financial markets were little changed, and polls showed that the parties remained popular with their core supporters.
As Mr. Boehner and Ms. Pelosi attended the White House meeting, their chamber debated specific spending measures that would fund popular government services and agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, which runs a research hospital that treats rare forms of cancer and other diseases.
Mr. Reid remained unshakeable, even by the prospect of being tagged by Republicans as the one to blame for denying treatment to sick children. Mr. Reid said he would only pass a "clean" budget renewal. The White House also reiterated that Mr. Obama would veto piecemeal approaches to funding the government.
There were other developments Wednesday that raised the stakes. Wall Street executives visited Mr. Obama at the White House and warned politicians to treat a looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling more seriously than they did the end of the government's legal ability to spend on non-essential services.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew reiterated this week that he will run out of money to pay the government's debt on Oct. 17. Most economists say that would force a default, with catastrophic economic consequences.
"There's precedent for government shutdown. There's no precedent for default," said Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. "We really haven't seen this before, and I'm not anxious to be part of the process to witness this."
Mr. Obama cancelled trips at the end of next week to Malaysia and the Philippines because of the shutdown. The White House also said it was possible the President would skip international summits in Indonesia and Brunei, for which he is scheduled to depart on Saturday.
The incredible rising U.S. national debt and hitting the debt ceiling
The last shutdown
It's been 17 years since the last U.S. government shutdown, a two-stage battle that saw portions of the government close in 1995 and 1996. That battle pitted a House Republican majority against Democratic President Bill Clinton during his first term and resulted in a public-relations defeat for the Republicans. In October of 1995, shortly before the first of two shutdowns, Mr. Clinton's approval rating was at 46 per cent, according to Gallup. By March of 1996, it was 54 per cent, and Mr. Clinton was re-elected that November. According to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, those shutdowns cost $1.4-billion.
The current shutdown
Large portions of the U.S. government were forced to close at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday after the new fiscal year began without an agreement on a stopgap spending measure, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, that would finance the government until spending levels are set for the new year. It has meant that 800,000 federal workers have been sent home without pay, and a number of national parks and monuments closed to tourists. The closing of offices, parks and museums may cost the United States at least $300-million a day in lost economic output at the start, according to IHS Inc., a global market research firm.
The looming crisis
The next big fight will be over the debt ceiling. The U.S. government is forecast to hit its $16.7-trillion borrowing limit on Oct. 17. Without congressional action, the government could find itself unable to make payments, possibly triggering a default.
Sources: Bloomberg, Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times