Washington Time growing short, President Barack Obama and congressional leaders failed to reach agreement Thursday night on a compromise to cut spending and head off a midnight tonight government shutdown that no one claimed to want.
Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid all said the differences had been narrowed in a pair of White House meetings during the day. They directed their aides to work through the night in pursuit of a deal.
“I expect an answer in the morning,” Obama said in an appearance in the White House briefing room shortly after his second sit-down of the day with the lawmakers.
The comments capped a day in which the president, Reid, D-Nev., and Boehner, R-Ohio, bargained and blustered by turns, struggling to settle their differences over spending cuts and other issues while maneuvering to avoid any political blame if they failed.
With the economy just now beginning to create jobs in large numbers, the president said a shutdown would damage the recovery. “For us to go backwards because Washington couldn’t get its act together is just unacceptable,” he said. The White House announced he had postponed a scheduled trip to Indianapolis for the morning.
But agreement remained elusive, and Republicans passed legislation through the House at mid-day to fund the Pentagon for six months, cut $12 billion in domestic spending and keep the federal bureaucracy humming for an additional week. “There is absolutely no policy reason for the Senate to not follow the House in taking these responsible steps to support our troops and to keep our government open,” said Boehner.
Obama flashed a veto threat even before the bill passed on a 247-181, mostly party-line vote. The administration issued a statement calling it “a distraction from the real work” of agreeing on legislation to cover the six months left in the current fiscal year, and there was no indication Reid would allow a vote on it.
As they left the White House after the evening meeting, Reid and Boehner issued a brief written statement that said they had narrowed their disagreements and said they would “continue to work through the night to attempt to resolve” the remaining ones.
Republicans want deeper spending cuts than the Democrats favor and also are pressing for provisions to cut off federal funds to Planned Parenthood and stop the EPA from issuing numerous anti-pollution regulations.
“They’re difficult issues. They’re important to both sides and so I’m not yet prepared to express wild optimism,” said the president.
In a shift in position, Obama said he would sign a short-term measure keeping the government running even without an agreement to give negotiations more time to succeed.
That was one of the options available to Reid, although Boehner said he was confident Democratic lawmakers would persuade “Reid and our commander in chief to keep the government from shutting down” by signing the House-passed bill.