Speaker John Boehner cast blame on Democrats for prolonging the shutdown on Friday, but didn't specify a way forward in the Washington stalemate.
Waving a copy of the Wall Street Journal, the speaker cited an anonymous White House official in the paper who indicated "it doesn't really matter to us" how long the standoff occurs as long as the administration prevails.
"This isn't some damn game," Boehner said in a Friday press conference with Republican leaders. "The American people don't want their government shut down and neither do I. All we're asking for is to sit down and have a discussion and...reopen the government and bring fairness to the American people under Obamacare."
As day four of the shutdown gets under way, Republicans are continuing their strategy of passing small piecemeal legislation to partially fund the government, announcing 10 new bills on Friday funding agencies like FEMA and the National Weather Service as well as food programs for impoverished Americans. The White House and Senate Democratic leaders have said they will not support any of them, demanding Republicans pass a clean continuing resolution that would reopen the government entirely. Republican leaders say that won't happen, although a small group of about 20 House Republicans have said they'd vote for a clean CR if Boehner brought it to the floor. That, with full Democratic support, would constitute a majority.
The White House reiterated its opposition to any such "piecemeal" funding bills with another statement released around the time of Boehner's press conference. "Instead of opening up a few Government functions, the House of Representatives should re-open all of the Government," the Office of Management and Budget Friday statement read.
At this point, the shutdown fight has into a kind of meta-debate. Whereas the lead-up to the shutdown was characterized by apocalyptic warnings on the right that this is the last chance to stop Obamacare before the government Leviathan becomes permanent, the new phase is mostly about mitigating the effects of the shutdown itself and demanding negotiations as an end unto itself.
"It's hard to talk about strategy when the other side won't conference," Congressman Michael Burgess said after Friday morning's House GOP meeting. "It's as simple as that."
One frustrating problem for Republicans is that the Affordable Care Act is still being funded during the shutdown. That puts a kind of cap on the Republican strategy of passing a piecemeal set of funding measures: even if they essentially reconstituted the entire government with individual bills, Obamacare would still be around. So why not just fund the whole government?
There may not be a clear endgame in sight for House Republicans at the moment. But scattered reports emerged on Friday that various players, from Boehner to GOP moderates to House Democratic leaders, were working on a variety of possible plans to break the stalemate.
Although Boehner did not bring it up in his meeting with House Republicans, National Review's Robert Costa reported that the Speaker is now focused on crafting a large budget deal involving tax reform and entitlement cuts which he would then tie to both the CR and the debt limit. Obama has repeatedly said he won't accept a major budget deal without the GOP agreeing to new tax revenues, so this isn't likely to go anywhere without some willingness to budge on Boehner's behalf. And the president's been just as insistent he won't negotiate on the debt limit, raising the fear of a default if neither side budges before October 17, when the Treasury Department says the US will default on its obligations and spark a financial crisis.
But while the shutdown shows little sign of abating, there are subtle signs the debt ceiling fight may be less tense than some initially feared. The New York Times reported on Thursday night that Boehner had informed colleagues he was unwilling to default and would rely on Democratic votes to pass a debt ceiling increase if necessary. Similar reports soon followed. Republican members who talked to MSNBC on Thursday indicated they were uneasy with using the debt limit as a threat, preferring instead to characterize it as a general opportunity to discuss the budget with the White House.
"I don't believe we should default on our debt, its not good for our country," Boehner said on Friday. "But after 55 years of spending more than what you bring in, something ought to be addressed."
Boehner is the most important player in the current drama, but the lack of major movement since the shutdown began Tuesday is prompting rank-and-file Democrats Republicans to explore their own alternatives -- even if they're not too likely to go anywhere.
Republican Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, one of the fiercest critics of the party's tea party wing, joined a small group of House Democrats in proposing a six-month bill funding the government in exchange for repealing the ACA's medical device tax, which many Democrats have criticized. But the conservative wing of the GOP is likely to reject the offer as too weak while Democratic leaders are opposed to anything but a clean CR.
On the other side of the aisle, the Washington Post's Greg Sargent reports that House Democrats are looking at a complicated legislative maneuver to force a vote on a clean CR using a discharge petition, a procedure in which members can bring a bill to the floor by acquiring signatures from a majority of the House. Since close to two dozen Republicans have said they support funding the government without preconditions, Democrats could garner that number in theory. In practice, however, it's extremely unlikely. While many Republicans have publicly called for an end to the shutdown, nearly all of them have towed the party line when there are actual votes.