WASHINGTON - The federal government entered the third day of a partial shutdown Thursday after a White House meeting among President Barack Obama and top congressional leaders yielded no signs of progress in a dispute between Democrats and Republicans in Congress that has idled hundreds of thousands of workers and curtailed services nationwide.
Funding for much of the government has been cut off since Tuesday, when a Republican effort to thwart the nation's new health care law stalled a short-term, normally routine spending bill.
"The House could act today to reopen the government and stop the harm this shutdown is causing to the economy and families across the country," the White House said in a written statement after the session. In a jab at the Republican-led chamber, it added, "The president remains hopeful that common sense will prevail."
The partial shutdown closed iconic national parks monuments and forced 800,000 employees — nearly a third of the federal workforce — off the job, amid mounting anger from the public. People classified as essential employees — such as air traffic controllers, Border Patrol agents and most food inspectors — continued to work.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner complained to reporters that Obama had said anew that "he will not negotiate." Boehner made clear that curbing the health care overhaul that Obama pushed into law three years ago remains part of the price for returning federal workers to their jobs and resuscitating programs ranging from feeding pregnant women to staffing Internal Revenue Service call centres.
Wednesday's lack of progress did little to dispel the widening impression that the dispute could persist into mid-October and become tangled with an even more consequential battle. The Obama administration has said Congress must renew the government's authority to borrow money by Oct. 17 or risk a first-ever federal default, which many economists say would dangerously jangle the world economy.
The shutdown stalemate is already rattling investors. Stock markets in the U.S. and overseas fell Wednesday, and Europe's top central banker, Mario Draghi, called the shutdown "a risk if protracted."
On Thursday, Republicans planned to continue pursuing their latest strategy: muscling bills through the House that would restart some popular programs.
Votes were on tap for restoring funds for veterans and paying members of the National Guard and Reserves. On Wednesday, the chamber voted to finance the national parks and biomedical research and let the District of Columbia's municipal government spend federally controlled dollars.
Democrats demanded that the entire government be reopened, and the White House and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made clear that the Republicans' narrower bills have no chance of survival. They said the strategy showed that Republicans were buckling under public pressure, with Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter saying groups like veterans were being "used as a pawn in this cynical political game."
Republicans countered that Democrats were being inflexible and were to blame for the continued closure of programs the Republican Party was trying to reopen. A favourite target was Reid, who has made clear that the Senate will be a graveyard for the Republican effort.
Reid told reporters that Obama and Democrats are "locked in tight" on not diluting the health care law. And the White House said that during his meeting with congressional leaders, Obama repeated his refusal to negotiate over extending the government's debt limit. The White House said Obama believed it was Congress' job "to pay the bills it has racked up and spare the nation from a devastating default."
Republican leaders and many rank-and-file Republican lawmakers, especially in the Senate, had been reluctant to link demands for curbing the health care law to legislation keeping government open, concerned that voters would blame Republicans for any shutdown.
But on Wednesday, Republicans solidly opposed an unsuccessful Democratic move to force the House to vote on a Senate-passed bill keeping government open until Nov. 15 without any strings on the health care law.
The House has approved legislation keeping the entire government funded through Dec. 15. It also would impose a one-year delay in the health care law's requirement that individuals buy health insurance, which would threaten to cripple the program, and block federal subsidies for health coverage bought by lawmakers and their staff.