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Obama not budging

The president continues to refuse to negotiate with House Republicans as the debt-ceiling deadline nears

President Obama concludes his Tuesday afternoon press conference at the White House. Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak

Obama not budging

WASHINGTON—The shutdown standoff entered its second week with zero hints that lawmakers are nearing a resolution. Meanwhile, the Oct. 17 debt-ceiling deadline set by the White House looms, threatening to overshadow the partial closure of the federal government.

The eighth day of the shutdown brought repeats of the familiar rhetoric seen on the previous seven days. Both a brief morning phone call placed Tuesday by President Barack Obama to House Speaker John Boehner and an hour-long afternoon press conference at the White House could be summed up the same way: The president said, “I’m not budging,” when it comes to his often-stated position that he will not negotiate with the Republican-led House over the country’s finances.

Obama tried to explain why he negotiated in the past on raising the debt ceiling and why he declines to do so now. He also offered to buy dinner for “reasonable Republicans” who want to talk.

But the most remarkable thing about the White House press conference was how no reporters present asked the president about the clunky, glitch-filled launch of his new healthcare law. Obama talked about buying new cars, the video game system Xbox, and moaned over how canceling his tour of Asia was like “me not showing up to my own party.” He took questions from 11 reporters, but no one forced him to explain Obamacare’s substantial website problems.

The president is waiting on Republicans to cave on both the government spending resolution and raising the borrowing limit. The national debt has doubled since Obama first opposed raising the debt ceiling as a U.S. senator in a move to establish his fiscal bona fides ahead of his presidential run. But the president on Tuesday did offer an olive branch of sorts to Republicans. He said he would sit down with them if they reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling even if just for a short-term basis. In effect, Obama said he’d negotiate as soon as Republicans relinquished all their leverage.

Boehner quickly dismissed the offer, claiming the president was asking for “unconditional surrender” from Republicans.

“That’s not the way our government works,” the speaker said. “The long and short of it is there’s going to be a negotiation here.”

Boehner added he wants to have a conversation “to just sit down and resolve our differences.”

Many Republicans in the House believe the Democrats’ refusal to negotiate will not play well with a majority of the American public. And they think that the more Democrats pound that message, the more they own the shutdown. Republicans feel bolstered by a CBS poll showing that 75 percent of voters oppose a clean debt ceiling increase with no spending reforms.

“The only thing more irresponsible or insane than the president letting us default on our debt would be the president’s demand that we increase the federal debt ceiling without addressing our nation’s spending problem,” Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., said at a press conference on Tuesday

Arguing that the “American people expect their leaders to sit down and have a conversation,” Boehner stressed that past changes to the debt limit have been used to effect policy changes 27 times over the last 40 years. That includes the spring of 2011 when Obama and Boehner negotiated a funding bill for the government lasting from March through September.

“There has never been a president in our history who refused to negotiate over the debt limit,” the speaker said. “Never.”

Boehner insists on not raising the debt ceiling without doing something about the drivers of the government’s unsustainable borrowing habits.

But Obama, during his press conference, said the 2011 negotiations taught him that Republicans were serious about letting the country default on its loans if spending concessions were not made.

“And so, as a consequence, I said we’re not going to do that again,” the president said.

During the day, the House continued its strategy of passing bills funding parts of the government except for Obamacare. The House voted 227-186 to restore funding to the Federal Aviation Administration and voted 248-168 to restore funding to the Head Start pre-school program. House lawmakers also passed a bill 420-0 to pay essential workers during the shutdown. But the White House issued veto threats to all the bills, including the Federal Worker Pay Fairness Act that passed unanimously.

When asked why he wouldn’t go along with the House bills to open parts of the government, Obama said, “Of course, I’m tempted.” Beginning with the words “But here is the problem,” Obama then launched into a lecture about how “some sort of shotgun approach like that” forces Democrats to pick winners and losers among government programs.

“You’ll have some programs that are highly visible get funded and reopened—like national monuments—but things that don’t get a lot of attention, not being funded,” the president said. “And we don’t get to select which programs we implement or not.”

Meanwhile, Obama’s executive branch continued efforts to maximize the visual pain of the partial shutdown. Federal officials gave an elderly Nevada couple 24 hours to leave their home of more than three decades because it rested on federal land. When the Obama administration shut down the Amber Alert website due to the lapse in government funding, the public furor forced the government to restore the website that helps locate missing children. The latest outcry is over reports that the government is denying the $100,000 death benefit paid to help military families with funeral expenses and living expenses when their relatives are killed while serving in uniform. That includes the families of five U.S. service members killed over the weekend in Afghanistan.

In a gambit to get Democrats to the table, the House voted Tuesday night to create a new Bipartisan Working Group on Deficit Reduction and Economic Growth. The supercommittee would include 20 lawmakers tasked with setting spending levels for fiscal 2014, devising conditions for raising the debt ceiling, and coming up with mandatory spending reforms. But some conservatives treated the group with skepticism, believing it looked like an effort to kick the can down the road. The concept also reminded lawmakers of the 2011 supercommittee on deficit reduction. That group failed to deliver results after lawmakers created it with such fanfare. Not surprisingly, the White House issued a veto threat over this new group—the 17th House-passed bill Obama has threatened with a veto since the shutdown began.

“Show me a way this ends without Boehner and Obama talking,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Slate. “I don’t know how this ends. Maybe we put ’em both in Gitmo.”

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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