WASHINGTON - A potential federal shutdown looming, President Barack Obama on Monday warned congressional Republicans they could trigger national "economic chaos" if they demand a delay of his health care law as the price for supporting continued spending for federal operations.
House Republican leaders were to meet Tuesday in hopes of finding a formula that would avoid a shutdown on Oct. 1 without alienating party conservatives who insist on votes to undercut the Affordable Care Act. Even more daunting is a mid- to late-October deadline for raising the nation's borrowing limit, which some Republicans also want to use as leverage against the Obama administration.
"Are some of these folks really so beholden to one extreme wing of their party that they're willing to tank the entire economy just because they can't get their way on this issue?" Obama said in a speech at the White House. "Are they really willing to hurt people just to score political points?"
The Republicans don't see it that way.
House Speaker John Boehner, who opposes the threat of a shutdown, said, "It's a shame that the president could not manage to rise above partisanship today." Obama, said Boehner, "should be working in a bipartisan way to address America's spending problem, the way presidents of both parties have done before," and should delay implementation of the health care law.
While some conservatives supported by the tea party have been making shutdown threats, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said Monday that was "a dumb idea." At a community meeting in Louisville, he said, "We should fight for what we believe in and then maybe we find something in between the two. ... I am for the debate, I am for fighting. I don't want to shut the government down, though. I think that's a bad solution."
Obama timed his remarks for the fifth anniversary of the bankruptcy of Wall Street giant Lehman Brothers, a major early event in the near-meltdown of the U.S. financial system and a severe global recession. He used the occasion to draw attention to the still-recovering economy and to what he called a "safer" system now in place.
He delayed his remarks as authorities responded to the shootings that officials said left at least 13 people dead at the Washington Navy Yard just a few miles from the White House.
His remarks also came amid public skepticism over the state of the economy and his handling of it.
While unemployment has dropped to 7.3 per cent from a high of 10 per cent and the housing market has begun to recover, the share of long-term unemployed workers is double what it was before the recession, and a homebuilding revival has yet to take hold. A new analysis conducted for The Associated Press shows that the gap in employment rates between America's highest- and lowest-income families has stretched to its widest level since officials began tracking the data a decade ago.
Obama conceded the problems, noting that the country has come far from where it was five years ago "but that's not the end of the story. As any middle class family will tell you or anybody who's striving to get in the middle class, we are not yet where we need to be."
The president said that he inherited the financial ills when he was elected in 2008, and his National Economic Council issued a report detailing policies that it said had helped return the nation to a path toward growth. Those steps ranged from the unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, that shored up the financial industry and bailed out auto giants General Motors and Chrysler, to an $800 billion stimulus bill and sweeping new bank regulations. Of the $245 billion that the government injected into the banking system, virtually all of it has been paid back, the report noted.
"After all the progress that we've made over these last four and a half years, the idea of reversing that progress because of an unwillingness to compromise or because of some ideological agenda is the height of irresponsibility," Obama said.
Conservative Republicans, on the other hand, say the health care law, which has yet to take full effect, will place a burden on businesses and the public and will damage the economy. As a result, they insist that it be starved of taxpayer money or at least delayed.
Obama also reiterated his stance that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling, saying that failure to raise it could lead to the first national default in U.S. history.
House GOP leaders hope to make a decision this week on advancing a temporary spending measure designed to prevent a shutdown in two weeks. Conservatives are pressing Boehner and other GOP leaders to include a provision that would block implementation of Obama's health care law.
Chances are fading for a complicated GOP leadership plan that would allow the House to also vote to "defund Obamacare" but automatically separate the measures when delivering them to the Senate to ease the way for quick passage of a "clean" funding measure for delivery to Obama.
The next steps aren't clear, but one option under consideration is to accede to conservatives' demands to deliver to the Democratic Senate a combined bill that pays for government and defunds the health care law. The Senate would be virtually certain to strip away the attack on the health care law and bounce the funding measure right back to the House.
That scenario might prove politically frustrating for conservatives, with the funding measure probably gaining enough votes to win passage in the House and proceed to the White House for Obama's signature.
Stopgap spending bills are usually routine, so the difficult path for the current one hardly inspires confidence for an even more important measure to raise the government's borrowing cap to make sure it can pay all of its bills on time. Republicans want to use the debt limit measure as a mechanism to win further spending cuts on top of those they forced upon Obama two years ago. Obama has said he wants Congress to pass a debt limit without conditions.
It's not clear how the debt limit conundrum will be solved, though a time-tested recipe would be to add mostly symbolic reforms like a "no budget, no pay" proposal that worked early this year when House leaders orchestrated a debt limit increase that was intended to last through July or so but is now likely to suffice until mid-late October. The idea was that lawmakers wouldn't get paid if the chamber in which they served didn't pass a budget. It was a House GOP jab aimed at the Senate, which hadn't passed a budget since 2009. This year it did but there's been no effort to reconcile it with a competing House measure.
Obama intends to continue pressuring Congress with daily events this week, including a speech Wednesday to the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs from the top U.S. companies, and a trip Friday to Kansas City to visit a Ford plant, where he will promote the strength of the auto industry.
Associated Press writer Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.