By Conor Berry
Congressman Richard E. Neal was among the members of the House Democratic Caucus who had a private meeting with President Barack Obama on Wednesday to discuss the federal budget impasse and debt ceiling crisis as the threat of a U.S. default looms over the horizon.
House Republicans are expected to meet with Obama on Thursday. They have demanded changes to the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration's landmark health reform law, and deficit-reduction measures in exchange for cooperation on the debt ceiling and a funding measure that might reopen the federal government, which has been partially shut down since Oct. 1.
But Wednesday's White House meeting was just for Democrats, whose leaders suggested they would accept short-term deals on both matters. House Republicans also are warming to the idea of a short-lived increase in the country's borrowing limit as GOP leaders prepare for today's sit-down with Obama, their first meeting with the president since the shutdown began.
Neal has blamed "Tea Party intransigence" for the 21st century's first shutdown of the federal government, which last came to a screeching halt during a partisan-soaked standoff totaling 26 days in late 1995 and early 1996.
The Springfield Democrat could not immediately be reached for comment about meeting with Obama, but he told a local TV station that the political logjam could soon be breached. "I think that the President now is anticipating, as we move to the final stage of this impasse, how he would like to see us resolve the issue and for the give-and-take purpose ... how we might like to see him stand his ground," Neal told abc40 News.
An agreement to raise the nation's debt ceiling, which allows the government to borrow to pay its debts, would stave off a possible default after Oct. 17. That's the date when the government will no longer be able to borrow money, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. The government faces a default that will create an "economic shutdown" if the debt ceiling isn't raised, Obama has warned.
The nation's debt was more than $16.9 trillion as of 4 a.m. Thursday, according to the U.S. National Debt Clock.
"On Oct. 17, we will run out of the ability to borrow money. That has never before happened in American history, unless Congress acts as Congress has always acted in the past to permit the United States government to continue to borrow," Lew said in an Oct. 3 interview with Fox Business News.
The latest polls are at least partially responsible for the slight partisan thaw and burgeoning spirit of compromise, however tentative it may be. An Associated Press-GfK survey released on Wednesday pegged Obama's approval rating at only 37 percent, while Congress as a whole scored a mere 5 percent -- an utterly "ghastly approval rating," as the Huffington Post put it.
In addition, 62 percent of Americans primarily blamed Republicans for the shutdown, while about half said Obama or congressional Democrats were to blame.
Obama has said he wouldn't negotiate with Republicans until the budget is approved without any strings attached, though he appears to have softened his stance. A Democratic lawmaker who attended Wednesday's White House caucus meeting said the president expressed a willingness to negotiate with Republicans, but "not with a gun at my head," Politico reports.
Many House Republicans have insisted that the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it's commonly called, should be delayed if the president wants Congress to approve a spending plan or an increase in the debt ceiling.
For Neal, "passing a budget and paying our bills should not be partisan or controversial," he said. "The gamesmanship and brinkmanship has to stop, and the House of Representatives must be allowed to approve a short-term spending plan in a bipartisan manner."
Obamacare shouldn't be thrown under the bus because conservatives object to the "law of the land," Neal said. "I strongly oppose any effort to defund, delay or repeal the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. This law passed both houses of Congress in 2010, was the central issue of President Obama's successful reelection campaign in 2012, and ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court the same year," he said.
The act is designed to provide affordable, quality health care to more than 60 million Americans. It enables children to stay on their parent's health insurance until they're 26 years old, protects people with pre-existing medical conditions from being denied coverage, and prevents someone who gets sick from being kicked off a health plan, according to Neal.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner says only 18 of the 232 GOP lawmakers Obama has invited to today's White House meeting will attend the session. That prompted White House press secretary Jay Carney to express the administration's disappointment with Boehner. Obama had wanted to speak directly with Republican House members about how the shutdown and the government's failure to pay its bills could "devastate the economy," Carney said.
Fears of default have already prompted some jittery money market managers to take precautionary measures. Boston-based Fidelity Investments, the nation's largest money market mutual fund manager, has already sold all of its short-term U.S. government debt to protect its investors.
Fidelity, which manages $430 billion in money market mutual funds, last took similar action in the summer of 2011, when Standard & Poor's downgraded the nation's credit rating and the government teetered on default.