WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans rushed late Friday to develop a new plan for reopening the government and avoiding a first-ever default in hopes of crafting a strategy that can win the support of the Obama administration before financial markets open next week.
Talks on Capitol Hill advanced with a new urgency after President Obama rejected House Speaker John Boehner’s offer to raise the debt limit through late November to give the parties time to negotiate a broader budget deal.
Briefing reporters after markets closed for the week (with stocks finishing up sharply again Friday after a big rally Thursday), White House press secretary Jay Carney praised a “new willingness” among Republicans to end the partial government shutdown and to acknowledge that default on the national debt “would be catastrophically damaging.”
But with the Treasury Department due to exhaust its borrowing authority in six days, Carney said Obama would not agree to go through another round of economy-rattling talks in six weeks, as Christmas shopping season begins.
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“It at least looks like there’s the possibility of making some progress here,” Carney said. But “The president’s view is that we have to remove these sort of demands for leverage, using essentially the American people and the economy.”
With Republicans getting battered in public-opinion polls over the shutdown, Senate GOP leaders urged Boehner to join them in supporting a single, big-bang measure that would open the government and raise the debt limit in one fell swoop.
“I laid out some of those ideas, and the question is, can the House find a center of gravity to open the government up around those ideas,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said after leaving the speaker’s office with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. The two men, former House members, have been close friends with Boehner for almost 20 years.
Details were still fluid late Friday, but the latest 23-page draft of the emerging measure would immediately end the shutdown and fund federal agencies for six months at current spending levels. It would maintain the deep automatic cuts known as the sequester, but give agency officials flexibility to decide where the cuts should fall.
In addition, the proposal would raise the debt limit through Jan. 31, 2014.
Lawmakers were considering whether to include a provision that would direct the House and Senate budget committees to immediately enter negotiations over broader budget issues and to issue a report by Jan. 15, 2014. If an agreement could be reached, it would clear a path for another increase in the debt limit later that month, without additional drama.
In exchange, Republicans were seeking what they called a few “fig leaves”: minor adjustments to Obama’s new health-care initiative. The first would delay for two years a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices that is unpopular in both parties. The second would require internal auditors to ensure that people who get tax subsidies to buy health insurance are in fact eligible.
Another option under consideration, but not included in the latest draft would reduce the number of employees entitled to receive health coverage from employers by changing the definition of a full-time worker from 30 hours a week to 40 hours a week.
By late Friday, talks were proceeding on multiple tracks. In the Senate, negotiations had advanced far enough that Senate Republicans — led by Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — sent draft language to their Democratic counterparts, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a trusted ally of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Meanwhile, Boehner, R-Ohio, was huddled with his top lieutenants in a hideaway on the first floor of the Capitol, reviewing his options over Chinese takeout and cigarettes.
Senate Republicans cautioned that Boehner doesn’t have much time to work things out. GOP senators are eager not only to get the government back to work, but to raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit before Thursday, when the Treasury Department has said it would exhaust its ability to conserve cash. Without an increase in the debt limit, independent analysts say, the Treasury would begin missing payments by Nov. 1.
GOP senators and aides said Boehner has been told that Senate Republicans will negotiate their own pact with Senate Democrats if he fails to act.
“From my point of view, it’d be better for the country if the House led,” Graham said. “It’s important that we continue to talk among ourselves as senators,” he added, but “if it came out of the House, it would be better.”
The rapid-fire developments Friday came as the partial shutdown started affecting far more than the nation’s monuments and parks, with much of the little-noticed machinery of government shifted to idle. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stopped monitoring mercury contamination in the Everglades and testing water after the recent floods in Colorado.
An $8 billion space telescope, the largest in the world, waits to be tested at minus-400 degrees Fahrenheit in a closed government facility in suburban Maryland, facing the possibility of costly delays.
And many of the nearly half a million federal workers whose paychecks on Friday showed half of what they normally earn fretted about how to juggle bills and put off major purchases.
Jobs deemed essential continued to be performed, but other tasks that have paused may take a lasting toll, even if Obama and congressional Republicans reach an agreement to end the shutdown soon.
The shutdown initially sent about 800,000 workers home Oct 1. The Defense Department recalled most of its 350,000 civilian workforce, and others who are deemed essential have returned piecemeal, including thousands of CIA employees and experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) needed to confront a salmonella outbreak in chicken. However, the shutdown has left close to 500,000 employees still on furlough, according to the American Federation of Government Employees.
Following is a look at how government services have been affected, and sometimes not, by the shutdown.
All national parks have been closed since the shutdown began, but the Obama administration said Thursday it would allow states to use their own money to reopen some national parks.
Agreements were reached between the federal government and some states to reopen some national parks and monuments, including the Statue of Liberty, Grand Canyon National Park, Mount Rushmore and parks in Utah and Colorado. Colorado also reached agreement to reopen Rocky Mountain National Park.
But several states say they are unlikely to participate, including Washington. Gov. Jay Inslee’s office said the state does not have the money to reopen its parks, including Mount Rainier National Park and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
In Washington, D.C., monuments along the National Mall have been closed, as have the Smithsonian museums, including the National Zoo. National wildlife refuges were closed to hunters and fishermen just as hunting season was getting under way in many states. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service said late Friday that it’s reopening several wildlife refuges, mostly in the Midwest, to allow pheasant and duck hunting.
Federal air traffic controllers remain on the job and airport screeners continue to funnel passengers through security checkpoints. Furloughs of safety inspectors had put inspections of planes, pilots and aircraft-repair stations on hold, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it is asking 800 employees — including some safety inspectors — to return to work.
More than 2,900 inspectors had been furloughed. The State Department continues processing foreign applications for visas and U.S. applications for passports, since fees are collected to finance those services.
Social Security and Medicare benefits continue to be paid out, but there could be delays in processing new disability applications. The Social Security Administration is also delaying the announcement of the size of next year’s cost-of-living adjustment, which was supposed to come out Wednesday
. Unemployment benefits are also still going out.
Several protection agencies have curtailed work. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission shut down most operations Thursday. However, resident inspectors will remain on the job and any immediate safety or security matters will be handled.
The Food and Drug Administration and CDC say they can handle recalls and high-risk foodborne outbreaks, but discovering them will be more difficult because many of the people who investigate outbreaks have been furloughed.
Routine food-safety inspections were suspended, so most food manufacturers won’t have to worry about periodic visits from government inspectors. U.S. food inspections abroad have also been halted.
The National Transportation Safety Board is not investigating most transportation accidents, making an exception only if officials believe lives or property are in danger. Nor has the board collected information on or sent investigators to the scene of 20 accidents involving U.S.-manufactured aircraft that have occurred around the globe since Sept. 30. Auto recalls and investigations of safety defects have been put on hold.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission is no longer screening products at ports of entry to prevent potentially dangerous ones from reaching stores, such as children’s products containing excessive levels of lead.
New patients are generally not being accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but current patients continue to receive care.
NIH has made exceptions to allow 12 patients with immediately life-threatening illnesses — mostly cancer — into studies at its renowned hospital. The FDA has halted the review and approval of new medical products and drugs.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says more than 12 million taxpayers who filed for automatic extensions in the spring have tax returns due Tuesday. Those returns, the agency says, are still due, regardless of the shutdown.
The IRS suspended all audits and will not be processing any tax refunds during the shutdown. IRS call centers will not be staffed, though automated lines are still running.
The military’s 1.4 million active-duty personnel remain on duty. About half of the Defense Department’s civilian employees were furloughed, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered nearly all 350,000 back on the job. Congress has ensured $100,000 payments to families of fallen service members would continue.
Veterans are still able to get inpatient care at hospitals and mental-health counseling at vet centers and outpatient clinics.
Access to regional VA offices has been suspended, making it harder for veterans to get information about benefits and the status of their claims.