Thursday, February 22, 2018
Politics

Obama sets conditions for government shutdown talks

WASHINGTON — In their first meeting since a budget impasse shuttered many federal operations, President Barack Obama told Republican leaders Wednesday that he would negotiate with them only after they agreed to the funding needed to reopen the government and also to an essential increase in the nation's debt limit, without add-ons.

The president's position reflected the White House view that the Republicans' strategy is failing. His meeting with congressional leaders, just over an hour long, ended without any resolution.

As they left, Republican and Democratic leaders separately reiterated their contrary positions to waiting reporters. The House speaker, John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama "will not negotiate," while the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Democrats would agree to spending at levels already passed by the House. "My friend John Boehner cannot take 'yes' for an answer," Reid said.

The meeting was the first time that the president linked the two actions that he and a divided Congress are fighting over this month: a budget for the fiscal year that began Tuesday, and an increase in the debt ceiling by Oct. 17, when the Treasury Department will otherwise breach its authority to borrow the money necessary to cover the nation's existing obligations to citizens, contractors and creditors.

Only when those actions are taken, Obama said, would he agree to revive bipartisan talks toward a long-term budget deal addressing the growing costs of Medicare and Medicaid and the inadequacy of federal tax revenues.

While the lack of a budget forced the government shutdown this week, failure to raise the debt limit would have worse repercussions, threatening America's credit rating with a globe-shaking default and risking an economic relapse at home. Yet the refusal by the Republican-led House this week to approve government funding until Obama agrees to delay his signature health care law — a nonnegotiable demand, he has said — raised fears from Washington to Wall Street that Republicans likewise would carry out their threat to withhold approval of an increase in the debt ceiling.

In a meeting with Wall Street executives to enlist their help, and then in an interview with CNBC before his White House meeting with congressional leaders, Obama said he needed to draw a firm line "to break that fever" in the House among hard-line conservatives who repeatedly issued fiscal ultimatums, resulting in government by crisis.

"As soon as we get a clean piece of legislation that reopens the government — and there is a majority for that right now in the House of Representatives — until we get that done, until we make sure that Congress allows Treasury to pay for things that Congress itself already authorized, we are not going to engage in a series of negotiations," Obama told CNBC, a cable business-news channel.

Boehner, under pressure from Republican conservatives and outside tea party groups, has declined to bring a so-called clean continuing resolution to the House for a vote because it would pass mostly with Democrats' votes and probably prompt a conservative backlash that could cost him his leadership office.

Obama, in the interview, said he must resist the Republican demands this time because a precedent was at stake. "If we get in the habit where a few folks, an extremist wing of one party, whether it's Democrat or Republican, are allowed to extort concessions based on a threat of undermining the full faith and credit of the United States, then any president who comes after me — not just me — will find themselves unable to govern effectively," he said.

The House on Tuesday passed measures to reopen the national parks, memorials and federally funded museums, and to finance basic services in the District of Columbia, whose budget is supplemented by Congress. But the Senate Democrats signaled that they would reject the legislation.

When Republicans were criticized for choosing Washington memorials over patients locked out of clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health, including children with cancer, they quickly passed another bill to reopen the agency. Democrats signaled that they would reject that, too.

Today, the House plans to pass measures funding veterans programs and paying inactive National Guard members and reservists.

When Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, was subsequently asked how Republicans could choose to help children with cancer to enroll in the clinical trials, but not allow disadvantaged children to return to their Head Start classes, he replied: "That's coming as well. We are going to take every issue that has come up and put it on the floor."

The president threatened to veto all such one-shot bills, insisting that the government be fully reopened, and congressional Democrats were united behind him.

Even as both sides weighed the costs of the shutdown, their minds had turned to the next, more risky chapter, the deadline to raise the debt ceiling.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., recalled that as a senator in 2006, Obama had once voted against an increase in the debt ceiling himself, which he has said was a vote of protest of the deficits caused by President George W. Bush's tax cuts and war spending. "I'm not going to give him a free vote any more than he gave the last president of the United States a free vote," Cole said.

   
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