WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama summoned congressional leaders to the White House on the second day of a partial government shutdown that has furloughed hundreds of thousands of workers and closed military cemeteries as far away as France. Republican leaders welcomed the Wednesday afternoon meeting but questioned whether Democrats were ready to deal.
Much of the government's operations were put on hold early Tuesday — ruining vacations, robbing businesses of customers and even idling many in the nation's intelligence force — in a dispute over Republicans' efforts to block or postpone Obama's health care law.
Obama repeatedly has said he won't negotiate changes in the law in exchange for reopening the government. Some in both parties have ominously suggested the impasse might last for weeks, with tea party-backed conservatives especially committed to the fight. But a few Republicans seem ready to blink.
House Speaker John Boehner's office cast the White House invitation as a sign the president might be backing down.
"We're pleased the president finally recognizes that his refusal to negotiate is indefensible," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. "It's unclear why we'd be having this meeting if it's not meant to be a start to serious talks between the two parties."
But an Obama adviser said the president would urge House Republicans to pass a spending bill free of the health care dispute or other demands.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said "frankly, we're a little confused as to the purpose of this meeting."
Nevertheless, McConnell, R-Ky., and Boehner, R-Ohio, agreed to sit down with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Reid, for his part, offered a new round of budget talks to House Republicans if they allow the government to reopen.
He proposed that the talks occur on a nonbinding measure known as a budget resolution that can serve as a template for follow-up legislation on the budget. Democrats have been pressing for official negotiations on the budget resolution for some time, but Republicans have resisted, saying they won't give any ground on taxes. Republicans are insisting on concessions such as a delay in the law's mandate that individuals purchase health insurance as a condition of reopening the government.
Boehner rejected the offer, said spokesman Michael Steel.
There were some rumblings from Republicans who wanted to reopen the government.
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 rank-and-file House Republicans — perhaps as many as a hundred — are tired of the shutdown that began Tuesday morning and will be meeting to look for a way out.
But GOP leaders and tea party-backed members seemed determined to press on. The House GOP leadership announced plans to pass five bills to open popular parts of the government — including national parks, processing of veterans' claims, the Washington, D.C., government, medical research, and to pay members of the National Guard.
The White House immediately promised a veto, saying opening the government on a piecemeal basis is unacceptable.
"Instead of opening up a few government functions, the House of Representatives should re-open all of the government," the White House said in an official policy statement.
Democrats in Congress said it was unfair to pick winners and losers as federal employees worked without a guarantee of getting paid and the effects of the partial shutdown rippled through the country and the economy.
Funding for much of the U.S. government was halted after Republicans hitched a routine spending bill to their effort to kill or delay the health care law they call "Obamacare."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a tea party favorite, said there would be no solution until Obama and Democrats who control the Senate agree to discuss problems with the nation's unfolding health care overhaul.
"The pigsty that is Washington, D.C., gets mud on a lot of people and the question is what are you going to do moving forward," Chaffetz, R-Utah, said on CBS' "This Morning."
Meanwhile, another financial showdown even more critical to the economy was looming. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told Congress that unless lawmakers act in time, he will run out of money to pay the nation's bills by Oct. 17. Congress must periodically raise the limit on government borrowing to keep U.S. funds flowing, a once-routine matter that has become locked in battles over the federal budget deficit.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, said Democrats would overwhelmingly accept a short-term spending measure to reopen the government and increase the nation's debt limit while other political differences are worked out. "That would be a responsible way to go," Hoyer told CNN.
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, virtually all of them without controversy. The streak was broken because conservative Republicans have held up the current measure in the longshot hope of derailing or delaying Obamacare, just as the health insurance exchanges at the heart of the law opened on Tuesday.
Some 800,000 federal workers — more than a third of the government's civilian employees — deemed nonessential were staying home again Wednesday in the first partial shutdown since the winter of 1995-96.
Even spy agencies felt the effects. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told Congress that roughly 70 percent of the intelligence workforce — including the CIA and National Security Agency — have been furloughed but he's trying to keep enough people to guard against potential threats.
Across the nation, America roped off its most hallowed symbols: the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the Statue of Liberty in New York, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, the Washington Monument.
Yosemite, the Everglades, the Smoky Mountains and more — put up "Closed" signs and shooed campers away. Couples planning to wed in national parks, rafters ready for once-in-a-lifetime trips through the Grand Canyon, and tourists who came from South Korea to see Hawaiian volcanoes all got the boot.
The far-flung effects reached France, where tourists were barred from the U.S. cemetery overlooking the D-Day beaches at Normandy. Twenty-four military cemeteries abroad have been closed.
Even fall football is in jeopardy. The Defense Department said it wasn't clear that service academies would be able to participate in sports, putting Saturday's Army vs. Boston College and Air Force vs. Navy football games on hold, with a decision to be made Thursday.
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.