WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is hosting top House Republicans to seek an opening in an impasse that has shuttered much of the government and threatens a catastrophic federal default.
The White House meeting, set for Thursday, comes as House GOP leaders are contemplating advancing a short-term debt limit increase designed to calm jittery stock and bond markets and allow more time to untie the knot that has the government partially shut down for a 10th day and facing a first-ever default between Oct. 17 and the end of the month.
A short-term debt limit measure was expected to be a topic at a closed-door House GOP meeting Thursday morning. It wasn't clear what conditions GOP leaders might seek to attach to the bill, if any, but conservatives consistently have been pushing top Republicans like Speaker John Boehner to add conditions beyond what Obama says he'll accept.
Also, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew was heading to Capitol Hill on Thursday to both give and get a public scolding. Lew's appearance before the Senate Finance Committee promised to be yet another public restatement of the administration's stance that Congress needs to reopen the government and lift the U.S. borrowing cap before Obama will negotiate over the nation's budget ills.
The game of Washington chicken over increasing the debt limit — required so Treasury can borrow more money to pay the government's bills in full and on time — already has sent the stock market south, spiked the interest rate for one-month Treasury bills and prompted Fidelity Investments, the nation's largest manager of money market mutual funds, to sell federal debt that comes due around the time the nation could hit its borrowing limit.
Wednesday featured lots of activity but no progress toward ending the budget and debt limit impasses.
Obama had House Democrats over to the White House, while Republican conservatives heard a pitch from the House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on his plan to extend the U.S. borrowing cap for four to six weeks while jump-starting talks on a broader budget deal that could replace cuts to defense and domestic agency budgets with cuts to benefit programs like Medicare and reforms to the loophole-cluttered tax code. Curbs to "Obamacare" were not mentioned.
At the White House, Obama told House Democratic loyalists that he still would prefer a long-term increase in the nation's $16.7 trillion borrowing cap but said he's willing to sign a short-term increase to "give Boehner some time to deal with the tea party wing of his party," said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
A midday meeting Wednesday between the two top House Republicans and Democrats, meanwhile, yielded no progress. Rival aides to Boehner and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California even disagreed over who asked for the meeting. Aides said Pelosi had a long-ignored request for a meeting with Boehner that Boehner unexpectedly granted on short notice.
Obama invited the entire House GOP to the White House on Thursday but Boehner opted to send a smaller squadron of about 20 mostly senior members, which prompted White House Press Secretary Jay Carney to issue an unusual statement criticizing the move to exclude tea party Republicans from the session.
"The president thought it was important to talk directly with the members who forced this economic crisis on the country about how the shutdown and a failure to pay the country's bills could devastate the economy," Carney said.
The frustrating standoff in Washington is weighing on each side's poll numbers, but Republicans are taking the worst drubbing. A Gallup poll put the approval rating for the Republican Party at a record-low 28 percent. Polls have consistently said the Republicans deserve the greater share of blame for the shutdown.
Also Wednesday, the House voted 252-172 to reopen the Federal Aviation Administration. Democrats generally opposed the measure and the White House issued a veto threat, saying the government should be reopened all at once, not piecemeal.
There was a brief moment of unity when the House voted 425-0 to let the Pentagon pay death benefits to the families of fallen U.S. troops.
That was a topic that drew the scorn of the Senate's surprisingly outspoken chaplain, Barry Black.
"When our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to families of children dying in faraway battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say, 'Enough is enough,'" he said.
Controversy accompanied the subject.
Republicans said Congress had passed and Obama had signed legislation last week to permit the payments, but the Defense Department said otherwise. As Republican leaders were pushing toward a vote on the bill making it explicit, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a charity would pick up the death benefit costs instead.