Washington • 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 10 days,” he said.
Reid and other Democrats blocked numerous attempts by Sen. Ted Cruz to approve House-passed bills reopening portions of the government. The Texas Republican is a chief architect of the “Defund Obamacare” strategy and met earlier this week with allies in the House and an aide to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to confer on strategy.
In a lengthy back-and-forth with Reid and other Democrats, Cruz blamed them and the White House for the impasse and accused them of a “my way or the highway” attitude.
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 approved legislation restoring funds for federal disaster relief on a vote of 247-164. Another allowing the resumption of the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program was approved 244-164.
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.
Other shutdown developments Friday
Default risk • Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said unless Congress acts, the government will be unable to pay its debts and will run the risk of default. He urges lawmakers to act by Oct. 17. Debt limit bills typically pass first in the House, then move to the Senate. So far, neither House Speaker John Boehner nor the rest of the leadership has said when they expect to draft and have a vote on one.
Back pay • With federal workers rallying outside the Capitol building, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the House will vote Saturday on legislation to pay them for the time they are furloughed during the government shutdown. Cantor indicated through social media that his House colleagues would approve the legislation.
The oldest victim • The latest victim of the shutdown has been dead for 65 million years. It is the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that was scheduled to be delivered this month to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The fossil’s cross-county trip has been postponed until spring, museum director Kirk Johnson said. The fossil — one of the most complete T. rex skeletons ever recovered — has been in Montana since the late Cretaceous Period.
Secret message • A National Weather Service dispatch for south-central and southwestern Alaska posted online and sent to media outlets at 5 a.m. contained a secret message: The first letters of each line on the left-hand column read “PLEASE PAY US.” Agency employees are required to work during the partial federal government shutdown to provide weather forecasts and any warnings. It’s unclear when they’ll get paid. A version of the post that was on the agency website later Friday didn’t include the apparent message.
Sources • The Washington Post, Associated Press