By Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON – With no end to the shutdown in sight, Congress headed into a weekend session as House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, sought to firm up fraying support from his conservative flank by vowing he would not agree to raise the nation’s debt limit without them.
Boehner pushed back against reports that he was ready to “roll over” – and leave his majority behind by relying heavily on Democratic votes in this next battle – saying “that’s not going to happen,” according to lawmakers attending the private strategy session Friday in the Capitol basement.
“He was basically blowing it out of the water,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said. “That was a message to us and reassured us that he’s going to hang in there with us, and we’re going to hang in there with him.”
Boehner’s hard-line approach was met by applause in the room as the battle over the shutdown has expanded to include the next front: the need to prevent what could be a catastrophic debt default if Congress does not allow continued borrowing to pay the nation’s bills past Oct. 17.
Democrats, though, also dug in, as President Obama has said he would only begin negotiating once Republicans allow the government to be re-opened and the debt ceiling to be raised.
The president’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, told House Democrats in a private meeting that the president would stand firm. Democrats say they will not negotiate while about 800,000 workers are furloughed and all but essential federal operations are shuttered.
“When you get bullied by these people, if you give in, they’re going to bully you worse and worse and worse, and sooner or later you got to stand up,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., in what he characterized as advice to Boehner. “And I hope he’ll do it.”
House Republicans had little choice but to stay in Washington over the weekend once Obama canceled his trip to Asia because of the shutdown. The president had been set to depart Saturday for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Once the House called for lawmakers to stick around, the Senate followed suit.
The House is planning to continue approving legislation to re-open specific parts of government – an approach Obama and Democrats in the Senate have rejected, saying they have no interest in picking winners and losers among federal operations.
So far Republicans, with some Democratic support, have approved eight bills to keep open favored aspects of government – paying for military troops, funding to open national parks and museums and, on Friday, money for disaster relief, as tropical storm Karen barreled toward the Gulf Coast.
Only the bill to keep paying the military has become law. On Saturday, the House was set to approve a bill Obama has indicated he would not veto like the others: back-pay for furloughed workers once the shutdown ends.
The shutdown began as a fight to stop the president’s health care law, a tea party-led strategy that has now broadened to the debate over the need to raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit.
Republicans want to pursue a grand budget deal that would reduce spending on Medicare, Social Security and other government services, but Democrats doubt that is possible with just days remaining until the next deadline.
“A grand bargain while the government is shut is virtually impossible,” Schumer said. “A promise to talk about a grand bargain isn’t.”
A punt could get both sides out of the stalemate, much the way the 2011 showdown over the debt ceiling was ultimately resolved. In that standoff, the two sides agreed to paper over their inability to agree by creating a new committee to debate budget changes.
Whether they can find a similar mechanism that would save face for both sides may determine whether the government can avoid an economically damaging default on its debt.
Top House Republicans are working on the demands the GOP will make in exchange for raising the debt limit and reopening government, according to those familiar with the internal strategy.
Still smarting from Boehner’s past failed efforts to negotiate a budget deal with the White House, Republicans have shied away from calling any new deal a “grand bargain.” Rather, they see it as a “big down payment” toward trimming the nation’s deficits, preferring the language of Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., the GOP’s budget guru and the former vice presidential nominee.
Following Ryan’s lead, Republicans are expected to revisit the components of past budget battles: cuts to Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs, as well as reforming the tax code, a long-standing interest.
They may also seek to gain the Obama administration’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline between Canada and the United States, as well as pursue smaller changes to the healthcare law, including repeal of the tax on medical-device makers and an end to the individual patient advisory board.