President Barack Obama brought congressional leaders to the White House on Wednesday for the first time since a partial government shutdown began, but there was no sign of progress toward ending an impasse that has idled 800,000 federal workers and curbed services around the country.
The standoff continued after a White House summit with chief executives as financial leaders and Wall Street urged a resolution before serious damage is done to the U.S. and world economy.
Obama “refuses to negotiate,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio., told reporters after private talks that lasted more than an hour. “All we’re asking for here is a discussion and fairness for the American people under Obamacare.”
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said moments later, “We’re locked in tight on Obamacare” and neither the president nor Democrats will accept changes in the nation’s 3-year-old health care law as the price for spending legislation needed to end the two-day partial shutdown.
With the nation’s ability to borrow money soon to lapse unless extended, Republicans and Democrats alike said the shutdown could last for two weeks or more, obliging a divided government to grapple with both issues at the same time.
Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia, said nationally Democrats are looking like the winners in this political battle with House Republicans. The shutdown is likely seen by the tea party members as a win for small government.
“There are more people that are likely to buy into the Democratic argument than the Republican argument,” he said.
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.
“We can stop this today,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter D-N.Y., urging Republicans to allow a vote on a standalone spending bill that permits the entire government to reopen.
But 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.
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.
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 6 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 Veterans Affairs Department.
The White House said Obama would have to truncate a long-planned trip to Asia, calling off the final two stops in Malaysia and the Philippines.
Responding to the House’s call for formal negotiations on the shutdown, health care and other issues, Reid wrote to the speaker to say he would agree, but only if the House first agreed to reopen the government.
Boehner rejected that.
Bullock said it was likely the House would pass the “clean” Senate bill except for the large contingent of Southerners who make up much of the GOP majority and come from politically safe districts.
“None of the Republicans from Georgia and not a whole lot, generally from the South, have to worry much about their re-elections in the general elections,” he said. “They’re simply districts Democrats are not going to win.”
The House sidetracked legislation Tuesday night to reopen some veterans programs, the national parks and a portion of the Washington, D.C., municipal government. All three bills fell short of the two-thirds majority needed when Democrats voted overwhelmingly against them.
Republicans tried again, this time under rules requiring only a simple majority, and passage seemed likely. They added two more measures to the list, one to provide money for the National Guard and Reserves, and the other for the National Institutes of Health.
The NIH bill was added to the day’s agenda after Democrats said seriously ill patients would be turned away from the facility’s hospital of last resort, and no new enrollment permitted in experimental treatments.
Slaughter said the Republican response was a ploy.
“Every time they see a bad headline they’re going to bring a bill to the floor and make it go away,” she said.
Some Republicans took obvious pleasure in the rough rollout Tuesday of new health insurance markets created under Obama’s health care law. Widespread online glitches prevented many people from signing up for coverage that begins in January.
Rep. Trey Radel of Florida said a 14-year-old could build a better website “in an afternoon in his basement.”
Not all Republicans felt the same.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., accused tea party-backed lawmakers of trying to “hijack the party” and said he senses that a growing number of House Republicans — perhaps as many as 100 — are tired of the shutdown that began Tuesday morning and will be meeting to look for a way out.
An earlier attempt by Republican dissidents to take control of the floor and vote alongside Democrats to reopen the government fizzled badly earlier in the week, and it was unclear whether a new attempt could gain traction.
The electoral fear for tea party members is drawing a competitor who’s more conservative, Bullock said.
“The way you head that off is that you don’t leave a challenger any room to the right,” he said.
At issue is the need to pass a temporary funding bill to keep the government open since the start of the new budget year on Tuesday.
Congress has passed more than 100 temporary funding bills since the last shutdown in 1996, almost all of them without controversy.
The streak was broken because conservative Republicans have held up the current measure in the long-shot hope of derailing or delaying Obamacare.
Sarah Mueller contributed to this story.