U.S. shutdown seen dragging on as debt ceiling fight nears

(Reuters) – The shutdown of the U.S. government appeared likely to drag on for another week and possibly longer as lawmakers consumed day three of the shutdown with a stalling game and there was no end in sight until the next crisis hits Washington around Oct. 17.

That is the date Congress must raise the nation’s borrowing authority or risk default, and members of Congress now expect it to be the flashpoint for a larger clash over the U.S. budget as well as President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.

The situation gives “every appearance of getting dangerously close to the conversation on the debt ceiling,” Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Minority Leader of the House of Representatives.
In fact, she said, “we’re in the conversation on the debt ceiling.”

At the same time, hopes that the debt ceiling fight could be resolved without a catastrophe were raised by reports in The New York Times and Washington Post that House Speaker John Boehner told other lawmakers he would work to avoid default, even if it meant relying on the votes of Democrats, as he did in August of 2011.

A spokesman for Boehner would neither confirm nor deny the reports, restating previous public statements by the Speaker that “the United States will not default on its debt.”

Senator Charles Schumer, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, reacting to the reports, said, “This could be the beginnings of a significant breakthrough.”

The New York senator added, “Even coming close to the edge of default is very dangerous,” as he urged quick passage of legislation to raise the $16.7 trillion cap on borrowing.

There was little action along with the talk on Thursday. The Republican-controlled House continued what has become a long process of voting to fund publicly popular federal agencies – like the Veterans Administration, the National Park Service and the National Institutes of Health – that are now partially closed.

Republicans know that neither the Democratic-controlled Senate or President Barack Obama will go along with such an approach, but it allows them to accuse Democrats of working against the interests of veterans, National Parks and cancer patients.

House Republicans on Thursday began queuing up 11 more bills to fund targeted programs. They are to fund nutrition programs for low-income women and their children, a program to secure nuclear weapons and non-proliferation, food and drug safety, intelligence-gathering, border patrols, American Indian and Alaska Native health and education programs, weather monitoring, Head Start school programs for the poor and other aid for schools that rely heavily on federal assistance.

Disaster assistance also is slated for temporary renewal under the House measures, as well as a bill to provide retroactive pay to federal workers during the government shutdown.

“We’re trying to see if we can get the Senate and the president to start talking to us, on anything. They’re just not talking to us,” said Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, explaining the tactic.

The bills are likely to be debated on the House floor over coming days, not all at once. Democrats have rejected the piecemeal approach and Obama has said he will veto the measures.

“STOP THIS FARCE”
In a speech at a Maryland construction company yesterday, Obama challenged Republicans to “stop this farce” by allowing a straight vote on a spending bill. He reiterated he will not negotiate on the spending bill or the debt ceiling.

Obama said there were enough Republicans willing to pass a spending bill immediately if House Speaker John Boehner would allow a vote on a bill without partisan conditions attached, a so-called clean vote. But Obama said the speaker was refusing to do so because “he doesn’t want to anger the extremists in his party.”

“My simple message today is ‘Call a vote,’” Obama said. “Take a vote. Stop this farce, and end this shutdown right now.”

Work in Congress was interrupted on Thursday afternoon when the U.S. Capitol was locked down briefly due to gunshots fired outside the building. One female suspect was shot dead after a brief car chase across downtown Washington. Police said it appeared to be an isolated incident.

The security alert halted work in both the House and the Senate and briefly diverted attention from the shutdown that took effect at midnight on Monday (0400 GMT on Tuesday), leaving nearly a million federal workers sidelined without pay and many others in the private sector suffering from the knock-on effect.

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