Rattled Congress seeks way out of its standoff

Jonathan WeismanThe New York Times
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaks to members of the media after meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. Republicans insisted they wanted to shut down the nation's 3-year-old health care overhaul, not the government. They got the opposite, and now struggle to convince the public that responsibility for partial closure of the federal establishment lies with the President Barack Obama and the Democrats. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Republican efforts to resolve the fiscal standoff that has closed much of the federal government heated up Thursday, the third day of the shutdown, with new talks over a broad budget deal and an effort by more moderate House members to break the logjam.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has initiated conversations with senior House Republicans on a broad deficit reduction deal that would allow some increases to federal programs squeezed by the automatic cuts known as sequestration in exchange for long-term changes to programs like Medicare and Social Security. The package would likely include instructions to try to move along efforts to simplify the tax code, too.

Aides described those talks as "conversations about conversations," not true negotiations, and they favored the term "down payment" on the deficit over "grand bargain." But the "down payment" that Ryan is pursuing must come together fast, to provide a framework that Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio can use to win over enough Republicans to reopen the government and raise the Treasury's statutory borrowing limit before a government default in two weeks.

"The longer this goes, the closer we get to the debt limit and the more the two of these roll together," said Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., a member of the budget committee. "If any agreement is going to happen, we're going to have to have multiple negotiators rather than have Boehner come back with it."

In a Capitol rattled by a shooting on the grounds that killed a woman and injured a police officer, tempers have flared and pressure appears to be mounting to resolve a stalemate that has shut large parts of the government, sidelined 800,000 federal workers and forced more than a million more to work without pay.

As the shooting incident was still unfolding, Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., took to Twitter to imply a connection with the shots fired outside the Capitol and the heated words inside. "Stop the violent rhetoric President Obama, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. .Disgusting," he wrote, only to delete the message later.

There were signs Thursday, however, that some lawmakers were willing to work together to end the dispute. About 20 Republicans and Democrats signed on to a proposal that would reopen the government, finance it for six months and repeal the health care law's tax on medical devices, a provision that has bipartisan opposition.

Reps. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., and Ron Kind, D-Wis., framed it as a compromise that both sides should be willing to accept to reopen the government.

"It's important that we accept incremental progress when we can," Dent said. "What we're talking about here is leadership."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., approached Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to try to open talks, also centered on the medical device tax as a face-saving victory for Republicans looking for a graceful way to back down.

And there has been some softening of the tone on the Republican side. Lankford, a member of the Republican leadership, conceded the "quandary" he faces in his district.

"Some people like the Affordable Care Act, and like what's happening with it. Some people really don't," he said. "People have two minds as they walk through it."

President Barack Obama, speaking in a Maryland suburb of Washington on Thursday, tried to keep the heat on Republicans, saying what many in the party freely acknowledge: If Boehner allowed the House to vote on a spending bill to reopen the government free of any provisions that would undermine the health care law, it would pass with bipartisan support.

"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. If the speaker did so, he added, within minutes "we can get back to the business of governing and helping the American people."

Certain of their advantage, Senate Democratic leaders said they had no intention of accepting even the modest compromise the House centrists were offering.

"I'm for changing the medical device tax," Schumer said, "but I will not do it with a gun to my head because of the precedent it would set."

The House's hard-liners, however, indicated that they were not ready to give in. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers were suffering, and more than a million others are now working without pay.

"There's some pain and suffering, but I don't think that pain and suffering compares one bit to being stuck with a lifetime of Obamacare, so that's why I'm holding pretty firm on this," he said.

The House on Thursday sought to relieve some of the pain caused by the shutdown by pressing forward with a series of small spending bills to reopen the parts of government deemed most politically sensitive, voting to fund veterans' programs and pay inactive national guardsmen and reservists. Those bills followed measures to restart clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health, reopen national parks, monuments and museums, and allow the District of Columbia to maintain city services.

In a twist, House Republicans claimed that they were supporting federal spending while Democrats were blocking those efforts. Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., a nurse, stepped to a microphone in the Capitol, her voice choked with tears, to call on Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, to allow a vote on the NIH bill.

Conservatives in the House continued to insist that Senate Democrats, especially those running for re-election in Republican states, would crack first. "There's incredible pressure on Senate Democrats," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

But red-state Democrats gave no indication that they were feeling that pressure. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, one of the most endangered Democrats up for re-election in 2014, insisted that nothing was negotiable until Republicans agreed to reopen the government all at once.

"When the government is open, we can all get back to working and get to the negotiating table over those issues," she said. "Those games, those gimmicks are not going to work. The only thing the House can do is open the government."

 


By JONATHAN WEISMAN
The New York Times