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House GOP plan unclear as Obama reiterates no negotiation under shutdown threat

October 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Barack Obama spoke at FEMA where he said he will not negotiate with House Republicans while the shutdown continues. A senior presidential adviser suggested the White House might be open to a short-term debt limit increase. Judy Woodruff talks to Robert Costa of the National Review about the continuing impasse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead story tonight: The furloughs ended for some federal workers today, but hundreds of thousands more stayed home, and much of the government started a second week in shutdown mode.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

PRESIDENT PRESIDENT OBAMA: The government is still shut down. Services are still interrupted.

KWAME HOLMAN: With no end to the shutdown in sight, President Obama warned House Republicans today they’re wrong if they think he will change his longstanding position.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We’re to the going to negotiate under the threat of further harm to our economy and middle-class families. We are not going to negotiate under the threat of a prolonged shutdown until Republicans get 100 percent of what they want.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president spoke at FEMA, the disaster agency, which recalled 200 furloughed employees when Tropical Storm Karen menaced the Gulf Coast. With the storm over, at least 100 of those workers will be furloughed again.

At the same time, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered nearly 350,000 of his civilian workers back on the job today to support the military.

NARRATOR: Irresponsible.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Organizing for Action, which grew out of the president’s reelection campaign, sought to add to the pressure on Republicans with a cable TV ad.

NARRATOR: Now Tea Party Republicans are threatening an economic shutdown, refusing to pay our nation’s bills, endangering American jobs.

KWAME HOLMAN: On Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner insisted the president won’t get his way. And on the House floor today, he called again for talks with the president.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: Now, the American people expect, when their leaders have differences and we’re in a time of crisis, that we will sit down and at least have a conversation. Really, Mr. President, it’s time to have that conversation before our economy is put further at risk.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans and Democrats did agree on one thing, a bill to give retroactive pay to furloughed federal employees. It awaits Senate approval and the president said he’d sign it.

But the greatest risk looms in just 10 days when the federal government hits the debt ceiling, running out of borrowing authority and defaulting on paying its debt. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Sunday he cannot extend the deadline any further.

JACK LEW, U.S. Treasury Secretary: I’m telling you that, on the 17th, we run out of our ability to borrow, and Congress is playing with fire. 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, Gene Sperling, a senior presidential economic adviser didn’t rule out accepting a debt ceiling extension of just two to three weeks. Senate Democrats said they will introduce a debt ceiling bill this week with no other provisions attached. House Republicans have said they want spending cuts and other add-ons included.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the latest on what is happening behind the scenes, we turn to Robert Costa. He is the Washington editor for “The National Review,” and he joins me now from Capitol Hill.

Robert, welcome to the program.

What is the latest? What are you hearing right now?

ROBERT COSTA, “National Review”: House Republican leaders huddled today at the Capitol and they still remain undecided about the path forward, even as the clock ticks with the debt limit approaching.

This means Republicans really aren’t ready to come up with a negotiation with President Obama, and they are just not sure of the path ahead. That means the impasse continues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are hearing, as Kwame just reported, the White House is sending the signal that they are prepared to accept a short-term increase in the debt ceiling. That’s something they were not willing to accept before. What are your Republican sources saying about that?

ROBERT COSTA: My sources close to the leadership, Judy, they tell me that this is an important piece of news today, because if the White House is willing to accept a short-term debt limit extension, maybe Speaker Boehner can bring this to the conservatives within his conference and say, hey, we may not get all of what we want right now, but let’s have a short-term extension and keep the fight going.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned Speaker Boehner. So much of this is focused on him. Describe some of the pressures around him right now. What is he hearing? What is he dealing with?

ROBERT COSTA: Speaker Boehner really is the central figure right now. I think he has very much a dry wit about him. I see him every morning when he his breakfast at Pete’s Diner on Capitol Hill.

But he is struggling right now to hold his conference together, to have a grip over his conference. He’s dealing with a bloc of about 30 to 50 conservatives that have probably more influence than most people realize. They really shape the direction of negotiations within the House GOP, and they are telling Boehner to hold firm and not negotiate. And that’s really shaking what is happening within the conference. They don’t want Boehner to even try to cut any kind of compromise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he also has members who — the reporting is, who are not comfortable with this strategy. How much pressure are they putting on the speaker?

ROBERT COSTA: A lot of the Republicans who come from suburban districts — I spoke to Jim Gerlach and Charlie Dent, two representatives, Republicans, from the Philadelphia area — and they said they would really like Republicans to end this shutdown and extend the debt limit.

And they are trying to whip their conservative friends behind the scenes and saying, this has to end. The mess has to end. But right now within the House GOP, it’s still very much a divided scenario.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the business community, Robert? There’s been a lot of reporting about folks who normally would consider themselves supportive of the Republicans who are letting it be known they’re uneasy with what is happening, the fact that the debt ceiling is in some jeopardy.

What are they — are they making their voices heard on the Hill?

ROBERT COSTA: The problem is the Wall Street community that usually supports the Republican Party, they’re talking to Boehner and the leadership.

But it is the small-dollar donors, the supporters of Ted Cruz and other Tea Party favorites, they are the ones that are really driving the discussions on the right within the House. But the real mood on Wall Street is that Speaker Boehner is known as a deal-maker. He tried to get a grand bargain in 2011 during the debt ceiling talks, and they think he can do it again.

And they think that what is happening right now is political theater and that come the deadline on midnight of October 16, John Boehner ultimately, they hope, will be able to cut a deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what is it that Republicans in the House need in order to move?

ROBERT COSTA: They need a fig leaf, they need a concession from the White House.

Like, after having all this brinksmanship and this standoff on the debt limit and on the shutdown, they can’t just go to the Tea Party base and say, we got nothing in return. They want maybe a repeal of the medical device tax, perhaps some trades of sequestration cuts for chained CPI, the way Social Security is calculated. They’re looking for some kind of minor concession they can sell to conservatives around the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Give us a sense of what is going on, on the Hill. We know many of the members may still have been out of town today. Are there meetings going on constantly? Is it all in the backroom? Give us a sense of how it feels.

ROBERT COSTA: So a lot of members were returning to Washington today. And there was a tornado warning here in the Capitol. And so members are still returning, but they are voting in the House tonight at 6:30 p.m.

And what they are looking at is, the leadership met today at 1:00. They later met at 4:00 and 5:00. And they’re trying to whip support behind the scenes for some kind of bargain. Boehner is plotting his next move. He remains undecided, but some time soon, probably later this week — and Pete Sessions of Texas tells me it will probably be within the next 48 hours — House Republicans have to unveil some kind of debt limit proposal. But they still need to decide what that final product looks like.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how close down to the wire can they let this go?

ROBERT COSTA: I think they are going to probably go to the final days. And that is because of the political pressure from the right. If they don’t — if the speaker and the leadership to the conservatives don’t look like they fought to the end, there’s going to be repercussions politically within the party.

So they have to keep fighting. And that is what you saw Speaker Boehner on Sunday on ABC talk about the need for a conversation, but at the same time saying he’s not going to yield any ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, finally, Robert, we’re hearing tonight in the Senate that this plan to pay federal workers who have been furloughed back pay has hit a snag, Senator John Cornyn of Texas. Do you know anything about that?

ROBERT COSTA: What is happening is, I think both parties want to make sure there is back pay for federal workers, but Senate Democrats, especially Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, they don’t want to have a deal with Republicans on back pay during this constant hostility, unless Republicans finally come up with a deal to fund the government and extend the debt limit.

So, until that happens, until Republicans inch a little toward the center, it is unlikely to have a final deal in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, meanwhile, it all waits.

ROBERT COSTA: Indeed, it does. And I think we are going to keep waiting until next week, until that 11th hour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Costa, thank you very much.

ROBERT COSTA: Thank you.