Republicans launched a furious counter-attack on the White House as the US government shutdown drags into a fifth day with no end in sight.
With lawmakers heading into the weekend, Congress appeared no closer to resolving the impasse, even as a far more challenging fiscal hurdle—the need to raise the US debt ceiling or suffer a catastrophic credit default—was barely 12 days away.
“This isn’t some damn game,” boomed House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, seeking to seize the moral high ground, after a report cited an unnamed official saying that the White House is benefiting from the shutdown, which has sent hundreds of thousands home without pay.
“This morning, I get the Wall Street Journal out and it says, ‘well, we don’t care how long this lasts, because we’re winning,'” Boehner said, theatrically waving a copy of the paper.
“The American people don’t want their government shut down and neither do I,” he added.
“All we’re asking for is to sit down and have a discussion, reopen the government and bring fairness to the American people under ‘Obamacare,'” the health care law that is President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.
The White House on Friday tried to contain the damage from the Journal quote, which dominated the media messaging war raging between Obama and his Republican foes on Capitol Hill.
Obama even staged a photo op—a rare stroll outside the White House to a nearby sandwich shop—to try and arrest the fallout.
“There’s no winning when families don’t have any certainty over whether they are going to get paid or not,” he said of the first shutdown in 17 years.
“This shutdown could be over today,” Obama added, calling on Boehner to call a vote on a temporary funding measure to reopen government.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate will convene rare Saturday sessions.
But some Republican pragmatists who have signaled they would vote to pass a fresh spending bill worried that such a resolution is no longer achievable.
“I think that ship has sailed,” congressman Michael Grimm said.
“We’re getting too close to the debt ceiling vote. It looks like the only thing that’s going to work right now is a dialogue.”
Obama is refusing to negotiate with Republicans over budget issues until they pass a temporary bill to open the government and agree to raise the $16.7 trillion US statutory borrowing limit—without which Washington could default on its debts for the first time ever later this month.
But Republicans are demanding the president enter into talks on their goal to defund or delay his health reform law—a step Obama refuses to take.
“I was at the White House the other night and listened to the president some 20 times explain to me why he wasn’t going to negotiate,” Boehner complained.
Obama meanwhile digested an embarrassing setback to his foreign policy and the US image abroad after he was forced to cancel plans to head to Asia for two diplomatic summits.
On Thursday he took the decision to cancel his visit to Bali for the APEC summit and Brunei for the East Asia summit, in what analysts described as a blow to his signature policy of shifting more diplomatic and military weight towards rising Asia.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, a possible 2014 Democratic presidential candidate, decried the “scorched earth” tactics in the government shutdown.
“We watch what happens in Washington with a certain amount of bewilderment, even disgust,” she said late Friday in a speech at Hamilton College in the town of Clinton, in upstate New York.
“The rest of the world watches it closely. When we let partisanship override citizenship, when we fail to make progress on the challenges facing our country, our standing in the world suffers,” Clinton said.
The shutdown has forced hundreds of thousands of federal workers to stay home without pay, while monuments such as the Statue of Liberty have been barricaded and national parks closed.
Amid the acrimony over who is to blame, Democrats quietly acknowledged that the two sides had opened lines of communication, after the White House meeting with Obama and top congressional leaders went nowhere.
“There are talks going on,” Senator Chuck Schumer said, but he would not elaborate.
Grimm said he would like to see a “grand bargain” emerge, which would include entitlement and tax reform.
Schumer said crafting such a massive package while government is shut down “is virtually an impossibility.”
The House of Representatives voted Friday on a string of mini bills to open favored areas of the government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and nutrition programs for low-income women and children.
But the White House has warned that in the unlikely event the bills make it through the Democratic-led Senate, the president would veto them. AFP