Congress looks for elusive path out of government shutdown

Entitlement Programs

For Obama, caving would mean accepting health-law changes and engaging in the kinds of negotiations on entitlement programs he entered with Boehner in 2011 during the previous debt-ceiling fight.

“It’s about a broader agreement, not just about Obamacare, but the debt ceiling and the issues facing our nation,” said Representative Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Are there areas that are critical to the nation that we need to agree on now and can that begin a path toward a common understanding of what we need to do to move ahead?”

So far, Obama hasn’t budged, insisting that avoiding default and reopening the government aren’t concessions to him because everyone wants them.

Instead, Democrats have been applying their own pressure to get Republicans to cave, particularly on ending the shutdown.

Lew’s Warning

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, who appeared yesterday on four of the major Sunday television talk shows, said the administration would be willing to negotiate only after the partial shutdown ends and the debt ceiling is increased. He also warned of the dangers of default, as well as the possibility that Congress may fail to pass an increase.

“I’ve talked with John Boehner; I know he doesn’t want to default,” Lew said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He also didn’t want to shut the government down. And here we are with a government shutdown.”

Democrats also point to the at least 20 Republicans who have said they would vote for a bill to open the government without policy conditions related to the health law.

That, Obama said Oct. 4, is the “only way out.”

Fig Leaf

One other possibility is the fig leaf, in which both parties make concessions and declare victory, even without a negotiated deal that resolves major fiscal disputes.

Republicans aren’t sure what they can get, said Representative Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican.

“When you have a Senate under Harry Reid that has now dug its heels into the ground and said we will not negotiate and a president who says he will not negotiate, what are we supposed to do?” Ross said.

Frost said he saw room for fiscal agreements such as a timeline for tax code changes -- as long as they weren’t negotiated against the shutdown or the risk of default.

Boehner “has to tell the crazies in his caucus to sit down and shut up,” Frost said. After that, “I don’t accept the proposition that the president couldn’t work things out.”

Party Priorities

Boehner has been trying to package the debt limit with as many party priorities as possible, including TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline, limits on environmental regulations and cuts to entitlement programs.

Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and his party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, is pressing for a plan that would resolve the spending impasse and raise the debt limit while extracting entitlement program cuts and making changes to economic policies, according to a leadership aide who asked not to be identified because plans aren’t official.

For Boehner, achieving any of those would mark a significant victory because Obama and Senate Democrats have blocked them for years.

Reid, turning up the pressure on Boehner, said last week that he didn’t want to give the speaker a face-saving way out.

“This isn’t a date to the prom,” he said. “This is our country.”

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