Obama, lawmakers to meet on government shutdown

President limits an Asia trip amid crisis, prepares to meet with House speaker

President Obama spoke about the government shutdown and the Affordable Care Act in the White House Rose Garden.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama summoned congressional leaders to the White House Wednesday as a partial government shutdown entered a second day with little sign of a breakthrough to get hundreds of thousands of people back to work.

Some on Capitol Hill ominously suggested the impasse might last for weeks, but a few Republicans seemed ready to blink.

House Speaker John Boehner's office said the Ohio Republican would attend the White House meeting Wednesday afternoon, casting it as a sign the president is ready to start negotiating on GOP demands to extract changes to the new health care law in exchange for funding the government.

"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."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., were also to attend the White House meeting. An Obama adviser said the president would urge House Republicans to pass a spending bill free of other demands.

Some Republican lawmakers appear ready to take that step. GOP Rep. Peter King of New York 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 100 — are tired of the shutdown, which 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 continue trying to open more popular parts of the government. They planned to pass five bills to open national parks, processing of veterans' claims, the Washington, D.C., government and medical research, and to pay members of the National Guard.

Earlier Wednesday, the White House announced that the president's planned trip to Asia will be trimmed amid the government shutdown.

"Due to the government shutdown, President Obama’s travel to Malaysia and the Philippines has been postponed," the White House said in a news release. "Logistically, it was not possible to go ahead with these trips in the face of a government shutdown."

The president will still leave on Saturday to travel to Indonesia and Brunei, the White House said.

Obama called Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on Tuesday to inform them of his change in plans, and to commit to traveling to both countries later in his term.

"I empathize and understand," Najib said Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur. "If I were in his shoes, I would do the same."

In Manila, a spokesman for Aquino also said that Obama's decision was understandable, and that the Philippines looks forward to welcoming him "at a more opportune time."

The federal government effectively shut down on Tuesday — forcing at least 800,000 employees out of work — after Congress failed to reach a deal on the nation's budget.

Obama accused Republicans of waging an “ideological crusade” against his health care reform program, and urged lawmakers to vote to keep government operations running without conditions.

“They’ve shut down the government over an ideological crusade to deny affordable health insurance to millions of Americans,” he said in televised remarks from the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday.

He urged lawmakers to pass a budget and end the shutdown, saying, “We’re better than this.”

House Republicans, meanwhile, failed to pass three bills on Tuesday that would have helped reopen parks and monuments, ensure that veterans would receive benefits and fund the municipal government of Washington, D.C. But even if the measures did make it out of the House, Obama had already said he would veto them.

He said he wanted nothing less than a full funding bill for the entire government.

Obama said that “many representatives have made it clear that, had they been allowed by Speaker Boehner to take a simple up or down vote on keeping government open with no strings attached, enough votes from both parties would have kept the American people’s government open and operating.”

The shutdown was the first in 17 years.

Republican lawmakers, who control the House, have insisted on a spending plan that includes provisions to weaken the reforms called for under the Obama administration’s signature Affordable Care Act, or ACA. The Democratic-controlled Senate has rejected the plan.

But the rollout of the ACA itself remained unaffected Tuesday, as enrollment opened for millions of people shopping for medical insurance.

If Congress can agree to a new funding bill soon and the shutdown lasts days rather than weeks, it will have relatively little impact on the world’s largest economy. But for now, more than a third of the federal civilian workforce has been furloughed — equivalent to the combined workforces of Target, General Motors, Exxon and Google.

Obama wrote government employees a letter Tuesday thanking them for their service and apologizing for the shutdown, calling it “completely preventable.”

“It should not have happened,” he wrote.

In his remarks Tuesday, Obama immediately labeled the situation a “Republican shutdown.” He said that by closing much of government, an out-of-control faction of House Republicans was putting the nation’s fragile recovery at risk of an “economic shutdown.” He went on to praise the rollout of the new health care exchanges that were launched Tuesday, despite the bugs and glitches that he said come with any new plan, program or software.

“For the 15 percent of those who don’t have health insurance, this opportunity is life changing,” he said, and he urged people to go online to shop for health insurance plans “the same way you’d shop for a plane ticket on Kayak or a computer on Amazon.”

He criticized Republicans and other detractors of the ACA for their efforts to roll back the law because of online glitches and said he would not bow to Republican demands to scrap it. “We don’t actively root for failure,” Obama said. “We make things work. We make them better. We keep going.”

The president went on to urge lawmakers to not only end the budget stalemate but also avoid a similar standoff on the impending vote to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, citing the 2011 showdown when Congress refused to raise the limit and the economic recovery staggered.

“Don’t wait. Don’t delay. Don’t put our economy through this any longer,” Obama said. “I’m more than happy to work with (Republicans) on all kinds of issues.”

Al Jazeera and wire services

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