A partial government shutdown entered its fifth day Saturday, with Congress convening for a session that promised no progress in breaking the impasse but at least saw the passing of a bill offering back pay to furloughed federal workers.
The GOP House voted to pass the legislation, which is backed by the White House and congressional Democrats, and would make sure the 800,000 sidelined government employees would get their pay when the shutdown ends. The Senate is likewise expected to clear the bill for President Barack Obama's signature.
Later on Saturday, the Pentagon announced that it is ordering most of its 400,000 furloughed civilian staff back to work. Under a liberal interpretation of a law passed last week to ensure military personnel would continue to get paid, government lawyers concluded that the act allowed the elimination of furloughs for “employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.”
The move will likely see a return to work for at least a quarter of the total number of federal employees temporarily laid off as a result of the shutdown.
But Saturday’s session in Congress gave no indication when government staff outside of the Department of Defense would be called back in.
In a news conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., continued to press House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to allow a vote in the House that would bring the shutdown to an end.
Expressing satisfaction that the House voted to give furloughed workers back pay once they are allowed to return to work, Pelosi added, "Why don't we vote to pay government employees to work?"
Lawmakers keep replaying the same script on Capitol Hill: House Republicans pass piecemeal bills to reopen popular and politically sensitive programs — on Friday, disaster relief and food aid for the poor — while Democrats insist that the House vote on a straightforward Senate-passed measure to reopen all of government.
"But the far right of the Republican Party won't let Speaker John Boehner give that bill a yes-or-no vote," Obama said in his Saturday radio and Internet address. "Take that vote. Stop this farce. End this shutdown now."
There seemed little chance of that. For one thing, flinching by either side on the shutdown might be seen as weakening one's hand in an even more important fight looming just over the horizon as the combatants in Washington increasingly shifted their focus to a midmonth deadline for averting a first-ever default.
"This isn't some damn game," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said as the White House and Democrats held to their position of agreeing to negotiate only after the government is reopened and the $16.7 trillion debt limit raised.
At issue in the shutdown is a temporary funding measure to keep the government fully open through mid-November or mid-December. More than 100 stopgap continuing resolutions have passed without much difficulty since the last shutdown in 1996. But tea party Republicans, their urgency intensified by the rollout of health insurance marketplaces this month, are demanding concessions in Obama's health care law as their price for the funding legislation, sparking the shutdown impasse with Democrats.
"I was disappointed when certain parts of the federal government were forced to shut down because Senate Democrats refused to make any changes whatsoever to the deeply flawed health care law known as Obamacare," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn in the GOP's weekly address. "Republicans are eager to end the shutdown and move ahead with the fiscal and economic reforms that our country so urgently needs."
Obama has repeatedly said he won't negotiate on the temporary spending bill or upcoming debt limit measure, arguing they should be sent to him free of GOP add-ons. Congress, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, routinely sent Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, "clean" stopgap spending bills and debt-limit increases.
"The American people don't get to demand ransom in exchange for doing their job," Obama said in his address. "Neither does Congress."
House Republicans appeared to be shifting their demands, de-emphasizing their previous insistence on defunding the health care overhaul in exchange for re-opening the government. Instead, they ramped up calls for cuts in federal benefit programs and future deficits, items that Boehner has said repeatedly will be part of any talks on debt limit legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats blocked numerous attempts by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to approve House-passed bills reopening portions of the government. The Texas Republican is a chief architect of the "Defund Obamacare" strategy and met earlier this week with allies in the House and an aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to confer on strategy.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press