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Boehner sees no end in sight to shutdown

Says Obama must make concessions; Treasury secretary warns of fiscal risk

House Speaker John Boehner dismissed any immediate path to ending the government shutdown Sunday.
House Speaker John Boehner dismissed any immediate path to ending the government shutdown Sunday.AP/file

WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner dismissed any immediate path to ending the government shutdown Sunday, prolonging Washington's political impasse as the nation heads toward the greater threat of defaulting on its debts for the first time in history.

In his first nationally televised interview since the shutdown began Tuesday, Boehner dug in his heels and said he has no plans to fund the federal government without winning concessions on President Obama's health care law, or raising the debt ceiling before an Oct. 17 deadline without reducing spending.

"We are not going to pass a clean debt limit increase," Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said on ABC's "This Week.'' "We are not going down that path."

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Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew accused Congress of "playing with fire.'' Reopening the government and paying the nation's bills are not matters that should have to be negotiated, he said.

The comments from both sides made it clear that America's political leaders have no clear plan for ending the stalemate.

Boehner's hard line Sunday appeared to contradict media reports last week that he had privately indicated a willingness to seek a vote by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to prevent default, even if it means crossing the Tea Party wing of his caucus. At least 20 mainstream conservative Republicans have said they are willing to join with Democrats to pass a "clean" resolution to raise the debt, without spending cuts or other conditions.

For the time being, at least, Boehner presented a united GOP front and said there is no change in strategy or a move toward a deal.

"There may be a backroom somewhere but there's nobody in it," Boehner said.

Boehner blamed Obama for not being willing to negotiate terms of a debt-ceiling increase. Asked directly whether he expects the country to default, Boehner responded, "It's the path we're on."

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"His [Obama's] refusal to negotiate is putting this country at risk.'' Boehner said. "I am not going to raise the debt limit without a serious conversation about dealing with problems that are driving the debt up."

Lew, also appearing on the Sunday news circuit, called the current impasse "very dangerous" and "reckless" because it jeopardizes the government's ability to make Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, disability and veterans payments on time once the country reaches its borrowing limit.

"If they don't extend the debt limit, we have a very, very short window of time before those scenarios start to be played out," Lew said on CNN's "State of the Union."

If the country runs out of its ability to borrow and is short on cash, Lew said, "It will mean that the United States, for the first time since 1789, would be not paying its bills, hurting the full faith and credit, because of a political decision."

Lew blamed the shutdown on the GOP's Tea Party faction, which he called "an extreme group trying to say we're willing to do real damage if we don't get our way."

In a positive development for federal workers, the Pentagon said Saturday that it would be bringing hundreds of thousands of civilian employees back to work this week after they were furloughed last week, a move that should relieve some of the economic hardship on communities with a large military presence. The original furlough sent 800,000 employees home; the Department of Defense has 350,000 of those workers, most of whom would be brought back.

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The partisan intransigence also broke briefly during a rare Saturday session when the House voted unanimously to restore pay to the 800,000 furloughed federal employees once the shutdown ends.

The 407-to-0 vote followed a series of piecemeal budget measures last week in which Republicans attempted to selectively restore funding to high-profile federal programs such as the National Institutes of Health, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, national parks and memorials, and a nutrition program for low-income women and children.

Representative Steve King, an Iowa Tea Party Republican, said Sunday that the House Republican strategy is to continue floating individual bills to fund the government — all except the health law.

"We will march down that line a piece at a time, opening up as many pieces of government as we can," King said on CNN. "The lid is on the pressure cooker. The clamps are down and the pressure gets turned up every day."

The Democratic-controlled Senate has said it would reject such partial measures, and Obama has promised a veto.

Boehner dismissed criticism among Democrats, and even some Republicans, that he has ceded control of the GOP agenda in Congress to Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party Republican from Texas who spearheaded the fight against the president's health care plan, by allowing the government to shut down.

"I thought the fight would be over the debt ceiling. But you know, working with my members, they decided, well, let's do it now," Boehner said. "The fact is, this fight was going to come, one way or the other."

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Cruz said Sunday that the debt ceiling fight is the best leverage Congress has to achieve its goals of weakening the health care plan. He told CNN that any debt-ceiling deal needs to include a "significant" plan to reduce government spending, avoid new taxes and "mitigate the harms from" the president's health care law.

Cruz brushed off any notion of a "cooling off" period during which Congress passes a clean spending bill and increases the debt limit for six weeks, enabling both sides to negotiate.

Obama urged Boehner to put a "clean" bill — stripped of any language about the health law, his signature domestic achievement — up for a vote, believing there are enough votes to both immediately reopen the government and raise the debt limit in order to prevent the United States from being a "deadbeat" on its obligations.

"The only thing that's preventing that from happening is Speaker Boehner calling the vote," Obama told the Associated Press.

But Boehner said Obama is the one who is putting the nation's credit at risk. Boehner said he decided to stay in Washington for the weekend in light of Obama canceling his trip to Asia, expecting the two sides to sit down and begin hashing out a deal.

"He knows what my phone number is, all he has to do is call," Boehner said. "I'm ready to talk. I've been ready to talk," he said. "I'm a reasonable guy."

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Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Democrats will negotiate but only "without a gun to our head." He said despite Boehner's claims to the contrary, the brinkmanship can end this week only if Boehner allows a "clean" vote.


Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.