WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama conferred with congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday for the first time since a partial government shutdown began, but there were no signs of progress toward ending an impasse that has idled hundreds of thousands of federal workers and curbed federal services around the country.
Obama "refuses to negotiate," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio., told reporters after private talks that lasted more than an hour. "All we're asking for here is a discussion and fairness for the American people under Obamacare."
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, "We're locked in tight on Obamacare" and neither the president nor Democrats in Congress will accept changes in that health care law as the price for spending legislation needed to reopen the government.
With the nation's ability to borrow money soon to lapse, Republicans and Democrats alike said the shutdown that has furloughed an estimated 800,000 federal workers could last for two weeks or more, obliging a divided government to grapple with both issues at the same time.
The Republican-controlled House approved legislation to reopen the nation's parks and the National Institutes of Health, even though many Democrats criticized them as part of a piecemeal approach that fell far short of what was needed. The bills face dim prospects in the Senate, and the White House threatened to veto both in the unlikely event they make it to Obama's desk.
"What we're trying to do is to get the government open as quickly as possible," said the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. "And all that it would take is us realizing we have a lot in agreement."
An attempt by Democrats to force shutdown-ending legislation to the House floor failed on a 227-197 vote, with all Republicans in opposition. That left intact the tea party-driven strategy of demanding changes to the nation's health care overhaul as the price for essential federal financing, Despite grumbling from Republican moderates.
Democrats were scathing in their criticism.
"The American people would get better government out of Monkey Island at the local zoo than we're giving them today," said Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.
The stock market ended lower as Wall Street CEOs, Europe's central banker and traders pressed for a solution before serious damage is done to the economy. Chief executives from the nation's biggest financial firms met Obama for more than an hour Wednesday, some of them plainly frustrated with the tactics at play in Congress and with the potential showdown coming over the debt limit.
"You can re-litigate these policy issues in a political forum, but we shouldn't use threats of causing the U.S. to fail on its obligations to repay its debt as a cudgel," Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, said after the meeting.
The Republican National Committee announced it would pay for personnel needed to reopen the World War II Memorial, a draw for aging veterans from around the country that is among the sites shuttered. In a statement, party chairman Reince Priebus challenged Democrats "to join with us in keeping this memorial open."
Democrats labeled that a stunt. "We've already been working on a plan to open the Memorial — and the entire government — after the GOP caused them to close," said party spokesman Mo Elleithee. "It's called a clean" spending bill.
As it turned out, more than 125 World War II veterans from Mississippi and Iowa who were initially kept out of the memorial Tuesday were escorted to the site with the help of members of Congress. Officials made further arrangements to allow veterans groups into the memorial during the shutdown.
A sampling of federal agencies showed how unevenly the shutdown was felt across the government.
The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development listed only six percent of their employees as essential, and therefore permitted to work during the impasse. James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, said about 70 percent of civilian employees in agencies under his control had been sent home.
By contrast, about 86 percent of employees of the Department of Homeland Security remained on the job, and 95 percent at the Veterans Affairs Department.