President Barack Obama brought top lawmakers to the White House on Wednesday as Republicans rejected Democratic demands to vote on legislation ending a two-day partial government shutdown without changes to the nation’s three-year-old health care law.
Despite the meeting, White House press secretary Jay Carney said sharply that Obama “will not offer concessions to Republicans in exchange for not tanking the economy.”
With the nation’s ability to borrow money soon to lapse, Republicans and Democrats alike said the shutdown that has idled some 800,000 federal workers could last for two weeks or more, obliging a divided government to grapple with both issues at the same time.
House Republicans brought a handful of bills to the floor to reopen portions of the government, including veterans’ programs, parks and the National Institutes of Health. Democrats labeled that a piecemeal approach and rejected it, and the White House threatened to veto the measures in the unlikely event they made it to Obama’s desk.
“What we’re trying to do is to get the government open as quickly as possible,” said the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. “And all that it would take is us realizing we have a lot in agreement.”
Democrats were scathing.
“The American people would get better government out of Monkey Island at the local zoo than we’re giving them today,” said Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.
The stock market ended lower Wednesday as Wall Street CEOs, Europe’s central banker and traders pressed for a solution before serious damage is done to the economy. Chief executives from the nation’s biggest financial firms met Obama for more than an hour Wednesday, some of them plainly frustrated with the tactics at play in Congress and with the potential showdown coming over the debt limit.
“You can re-litigate these policy issues in a political forum, but we shouldn’t use threats of causing the U.S. to fail on its obligations to repay its debt as a cudgel,” Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, said after the meeting.
An attempt by Democrats to force shutdown-ending legislation to the House floor failed on a 227-197 vote, with all Republicans in opposition. That left intact the tea party-driven strategy of demanding changes to the nation’s health care overhaul as the price for essential federal financing. Late in the afternoon, leading lawmakers filed into their meeting with Obama.
The Republican National Committee announced it would pay for personnel needed to reopen the World War II Memorial, a draw for aging veterans from around the country that is among the sites shuttered.
In a statement, party chairman Reince Priebus challenged Democrats “to join with us in keeping this memorial open.”
Democrats labeled that a stunt. “We’ve already been working on a plan to open the Memorial — and the entire government — after the GOP caused them to close,” said party spokesman Mo Elleithee. “It’s called a clean” spending bill.
As it turned out, more than 125 World War II veterans from Mississippi and Iowa who were initially kept out of the memorial Tuesday were escorted to the site with the help of members of Congress. Officials made further arrangements to allow veterans groups into the memorial during the shutdown.
A sampling of federal agencies showed how unevenly the shutdown was felt across the government.
The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development listed only six percent of their employees as essential, and therefore permitted to work during the impasse. James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, said about 70 percent of civilian employees in agencies under his control had been sent home.
By contrast, about 86 percent of employees of the Department of Homeland Security remained on the job, and 95 percent at the VIn an interview with CNBC before meeting with lawmakers, Obama said he would not negotiate with Republicans until the government is reopened and Congress votes to raise the debt limit.