WASHINGTON – Republicans in Congress rushed late Friday to develop a new plan for reopening the U.S. government and avoiding a first-ever default in hopes of crafting a strategy that can win the support of the White House before financial markets open Monday.
Talks on Capitol Hill advanced with a new urgency after President Barack Obama rejected Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s offer to raise the government debt limit through late November to give both parties time to negotiate a broader budget deal.
Briefing reporters Friday after markets closed for the week, White House press secretary Jay Carney praised a “new willingness” among Republicans to end the government shutdown — now in its 12th day — and to acknowledge that the nation’s first-ever debt default “would be catastrophically damaging.”
But with the Treasury Department due to exhaust its borrowing authority Thursday, Carney said Obama would not agree to go through another round of economy-rattling talks in six weeks, just before the Christmas shopping season.
“It at least looks like there’s the possibility of making some progress here,” Carney said. But “the president’s view is that we have to remove these sort of demands for leverage, using essentially the American people and the economy.”
Before Carney spoke, Obama telephoned Boehner and the two men agreed to keep talking, aides said. Afterward, Republican senators marched into Boehner’s office and counseled him to adopt an approach they had presented to the president earlier Friday, during their own meeting at the White House.
The Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon are to reopen despite the shutdown, with states temporarily paying the running costs of national landmarks.
Mount Rushmore, Rocky Mountain National Park and eight federal sites in Utah will also reopen starting this weekend, officials said Friday, although other world-famous destinations, including Yosemite National Park and Alcatraz prison, remain closed.
The National Park Service announced deals with New York, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and South Dakota under which the states agree to fund the sites, which draw millions of tourists and in many cases keep local economies afloat.
More than 400 federally managed tourist destinations across the U.S. have been closed since the shutdown started. The stalemate is costing $152 million a day in lost travel-related revenues, affecting up to 450,000 American workers, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Friday’s agreement will allow funding for the Statue of Liberty for six days, with the state donating $369,300 to keep it running.
Arizona has agreed to fund the Grand Canyon for seven days at a cost of $651,000.
Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park will be funded for 10 days at a cost of $362,700, and eight national parks and monuments in Utah will reopen for 10 days at a cost of $1.666 million.
With Republicans getting battered in public opinion polls over the shutdown, Senate GOP leaders urged Boehner to join them in supporting a single, “big bang” measure that would open the government and raise the debt limit in one fell swoop.
“I laid out some of those ideas, and the question is, can the House find a center of gravity to open the government up around those ideas,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said after exiting the speaker’s office with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a fellow Republican. The two men, former House members, have been close friends with Boehner for almost 20 years.
Details were still fluid late Friday, but the latest 23-page draft of the emerging measure would immediately end the government shutdown and fund federal agencies for six months at current spending levels. It would maintain the deep automatic cuts known as the sequester but give agency officials flexibility to decide where the cuts should fall.
In addition, the proposal would raise the debt limit through Jan. 31, 2014. Lawmakers were considering whether to include a provision that would direct the House and Senate budget committees to immediately enter negotiations over broader budget issues and to issue a report by Jan. 15. If an agreement could be reached, it would clear a path for another increase in the debt limit later that month, without additional drama.
In exchange, Republicans were seeking what they called a few “fig leaves” — minor adjustments to Obama’s new health care initiative. The first would delay for two years a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices that is unpopular with both parties. The second would require internal auditors to ensure that people who get tax subsidies to buy health insurance are in fact eligible.
Another option under consideration but not included in the latest draft would reduce the number of workers entitled to receive health coverage from their employers by changing the definition of a full-time worker to 40 hours a week, up from 30 hours.
In an interview with a Kentucky newspaper Friday, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled that he was helping to shepherd the effort to reach a compromise with Democrats.
“It’s going to require some sort of coming together here to get past the current impasse. And I’m going to continue to work on that,” McConnell told the Herald-Leader of Lexington.