By Tom Cohen. Deirdre Walsh and Ed Payne
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Grandstanding rhetoric abounded but little tangible progress was evident on Friday, the fourth day of a government shutdown both Republicans and Democrats say they don’t want but claim they are unable to stop.
“This isn’t some damn game!” House Speaker John Boehner said at a news conference where he ratcheted up pressure on President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats to negotiate changes to Obamacare as part of any deal to end the shutdown.
Repeating his insistence that the other side is responsible for the furlough of up to 800,000 workers and other impacts of the shutdown, Boehner said Democrats were willing to let the stalemate continue because they think they are winning the public debate.
“The American people don’t want their government shut down and neither do I,” Boehner said, calling again for talks on anti-Obamacare provisions that House GOP leaders say are intended to ensure fairness under the president’s signature health care reforms.
For his part, Obama repeated his challenge for Boehner to allow the House to vote on a Senate version of a spending plan, saying it would pass the House and end the shutdown “today.”
“I’m happy to have negotiations. We can’t do it with a gun held to the head of the American people,” Obama said during a lunch break with Vice President Joe Biden at a sandwich shop.
Obama and Democrats reject the GOP demands, calling them political extortion intended to force concessions on the 2010 Affordable Care Act that was upheld by the Supreme Court last year. In their view, Republicans forced the shutdown and now have no strategy for ending it without getting blamed.
“They’re flopping around like dead fish in the bottom of the boat trying to figure out what to do next,” Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington told CNN. “They have no plan B.”
Boehner and his GOP House leadership said they would proceed with votes, including a rare Saturday session, on piecemeal spending legislation to fund popular programs while the shutdown continues.
Democrats oppose the incremental approach, saying it amounts to conservatives pushing it to fund programs and services they like.
House Republican leaders sought to depict the legislative wrangling as Democrats harming federal workers and denying services such as national parks and veterans affairs by voting against the limited spending proposals focused on them.
Other piecemeal spending measures will provide funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service with a tropical storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the Head Start program, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said Friday.
Obama would veto such measures if they reached his desk, the White House has announced. On Friday, it said the president would sign one measure expected to pass Congress that would guarantee back pay for federal workers who are furloughed because of the shutdown.
A second fiscal deadline approaching soon — the need to increase the federal debt ceiling by October 17 or face potential default on U.S. debt obligations — has raised concerns that the legislative stalemate means paralysis that could cause serious economic harm at home and abroad.
However, Boehner reportedly told fellow GOP legislators this week that he won’t allow the United States to default on its debt, even if it means getting help from Democrats to pass the necessary legislation, according to a Republican House member who requested anonymity to talk about the private meeting.
Congressional Republicans remain divided over how to structure legislation to raise the nation’s borrowing level.
A Boehner aide said Thursday that the speaker “has always said the United States will not default on its debt, so that’s not news,” and Boehner said Friday that “I don’t believe we should default on our debt.”
However, he then repeated his longstanding contention that government spending must be cut so that the nation doesn’t continue to rack up budget deficits.
Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York cheered the reports that Boehner indicated he would not block a debt ceiling measure, even if most House Republicans oppose it.
The speaker took similar steps in the past year on raising tax rates on wealthy Americans and emergency spending after Superstorm Sandy.
“This could be the beginnings of a significant breakthrough,” Schumer said in a statement. “Even coming close to the edge of default is very dangerous, and putting this issue to rest significantly ahead of the default date would allow everyone in the country to breathe a huge sigh of relief.”
The potential breakthrough — at least on the debt limit — came two weeks before the government is set to run out of money to cover its roughly $16.7 trillion debt. Conservative Republicans want budget cuts in exchange for upping the credit limit.
Boehner wrote this week in USA Today that “there is no way Congress can or should pass (a debt ceiling increase) without spending cuts and reforms to deal with the debt and deficit and help get our economy moving again.”
He accused the president of refusing to negotiate; Obama and Democratic leaders have since said they are open to talks on any and all budgetary matters, but only after the government is reopened.
Obama out of APEC meeting
Meanwhile, with his focus on the brewing domestic crisis, Obama canceled his trip to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali, Indonesia.
“The president made this decision based on the difficulty in moving forward with foreign travel in the face of a shutdown, and his determination to continue pressing his case that Republicans should immediately allow a vote to reopen the government,” a statement from the White House said.
Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry will lead the U.S. delegation in Asia.
Obama challenges Boehner on shutdown
On Thursday, Obama called the GOP strategy of tying government funding to anti-Obamacare provisions “reckless.”
“The only thing that is keeping the government shut down, the only thing preventing people from going back to work, and basic research starting back up and farmers and small business owners getting their loans — the only thing that’s preventing all that from happening right now today, in the next five minutes, is that Speaker John Boehner won’t even let the bill get a yes-or-no vote because he doesn’t want to anger the extremists in his party,” Obama said.
Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York told CNN on Friday that at least 180 of the 200 House Democrats would vote for the “clean” spending resolution already passed by the Senate that would end the shutdown.
That means at least 37 Republicans out of the chamber’s 233-strong majority would have to defy the party’s strategy so far to reach the 217 threshold needed for the measure to pass and go to Obama’s desk.
Israel said 20 House Republicans had publicly expressed support for such a move, and that he expected more than enough others to join them if the measure actually came up for a vote.
Reid was part of the Democratic chorus Thursday, accusing Boehner of reneging on an agreement to let the House vote on a “clean” spending package of $988 billion, $70 billion less than Democrats wanted. Boehner went back on that deal, Reid surmised in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, because he feared fellow Republicans would turn on him and oust him from his position as House speaker.
Cantor: GOP should stand its ground
GOP Rep. Michael Grimm of New York said Thursday night that “very, very arrogant and very obstinate” remarks by Reid and what he calls a lack of needed leadership from Obama undermines the chances of reaching a deal.
“If you’re going to be insulted … and if you’re going to be spoken down to and there’s going to be this air of arrogance, you’re only going to make things worse,” Grimm told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
While Grimm and a few other moderate Republicans have backed a “clean” spending bill without anti-Obamacare provisions, some of his colleagues in the House say the party won’t budge from their strategy.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas described his caucus as “very unified” and said Reid and Obama are “confused” if they think “we’re going to fold and let them win on everything.”
CNN’s Greg Botelho, Jason Hanna and Josh Levs contributed to this report.
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