U.S. President Barack Obama says he expects Congress to increase the country's borrowing limit before a mid-October deadline, ensuring that the United States does not default on its financial obligations.
With the U.S. government in the fifth day of a partial shutdown, it also faces running out of money to pay its bills on October 17, including interest on government bonds held by China, Japan and other overseas investors.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press released Saturday, Obama said he expects Congress will increase the country's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling so the United States can borrow more money.
"America has never not paid its bills, and I've said repeatedly that that's not something anybody should be threatening," he said. "The potential default of the United States, where we are essentially deadbeats, that's never happened."
Obama, a Democrat in his fifth year at the White House, is locked in a political stalemate with Republican opponents in Congress over government spending policies and implementation of his signature legislative achievement: wide-ranging health care changes that are now taking effect.
Willing to negotiate
The president said he is willing to negotiate changes to the health law and reduce spending, but not until Congress agrees to end the shutdown and raises the debt ceiling without conditions. Republicans opposed to the health care reforms are trying to end funding for or delay that program, which is commonly known in the U.S. as "Obamacare."
Opposition Republicans have insisted that they will only approve a spending bill to reopen the government if Obama and Democratic leaders agree to negotiations on the separate issue of the health care plan.
With Congress deadlocked, a lack of funds has halted or sharply curtailed a wide variety of government services. All national parks, museums and the Library of Congress have been closed since Tuesday, and scientific research at the National Institutes of Health and the space agency, NASA, has been almost entirely suspended. These actions prompted government agencies to order about 800,000 federal workers on furlough status — sending them home without pay and barring them from remaining at their jobs, even voluntarily.
U.S. military forces have not been directly affected by furloughs, although the Department of Defense sent home 400,000 civilian employees before recalling them to return to work next week. Some federal agencies and programs, such as the Voice of America, have been ordered to continue their work even with a portion of their workforce on furlough. Air traffic controllers, Border Patrol agents and many food inspectors also are still working.
Despite the focus on the funding shortage resulting from the stalemate in Congress, it now appears that all furloughed workers will eventually be paid for the time they spent at home, thanks to separate action making its way through Congress. Repaying hundreds of millions of dollars to employees whose wages were interrupted, however, is a much smaller issue than the dispute over the debt ceiling.
The U.S., with the world's biggest economy, has never defaulted — failed to pay its bills, in effect. Most analysts do not expect that will happen this time, either, but the uncertainty that currently prevails could cause substantial turmoil in world financial markets. A protracted congressional debate in 2011 over increasing the borrowing limit did not shut off government services, but it roiled international financial markets and noticeably slowed economic growth in the U.S.
Some fear that could occur again in the next two weeks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday he does not think that will happen, but he warned that a "prolonged or repeated" political crisis in Washington could weaken the U.S. globally.
Speaking at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on the island of Bali in Indonesia, Kerry described the current government shutdown as "a momentary episode." The risk, he said, lies in how long the stalemate persists.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans who control the House of Representatives have offered to approve funding for individual agencies, but the U.S. Senate, controlled by Democrats, has insisted there must be overall funding legislation to reopen the entire government. The Republicans say they will not consider an overall budget unless that includes changes in the health care law, which was previously approved by both houses of Congress and ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Obama tried to highlight the impact on furloughed workers Friday by visiting a local sandwich shop that was offering discounts to out-of-work government employees. Before ordering lunch for himself and Vice President Joe Biden, Obama challenged House Speaker John Boehner to allow lawmakers to vote freely on a bill to reopen the government without conditions.
"This shutdown could be over today," he said. "We know there are the votes for it in the House of Representatives, and as I said [Thursday], if Speaker Boehner will simply allow that vote to take place, we can end this shutdown."
Democratic criticism has irked Boehner, who objected earlier Friday to a published report that framed the ongoing political struggle as a contest that one side or the other could win or lose.
"This isn't some damn game," Boehner said. "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 to bring fairness, reopen the government, and bring fairness to the American people under Obamacare."
Democrats in the House are considering using a parliamentary maneuver to try to force a vote on a funding bill to end the shutdown, but they can only succeed if some Republican representatives turn against their party leadership. Such a vote could not occur before October 14, three days before the U.S. must increase the borrowing limit.
Democrats in the House said they will use a parliamentary maneuver to try to force a vote on a funding bill to end the shutdown, but would need some Republican support to carry out the plan. Such a vote could not occur before October 14, three days before the U.S. must increase the borrowing limit.
One analyst, University of Michigan business professor Erik Gordon, said he thinks both Obama and his Republican opponents will have to compromise on their policy goals if a default is to be avoided.
"I think at the last minute there will be some compromise, because neither side can afford to be seen by the public as being intransigent," he said. "So the Republicans will have to give up and say, 'Okay, we'll settle for fewer tax cuts than we asked for.' And the president is going to have to say, 'I'm going to make some bigger reductions [in spending] than I said I would make,' because neither side can afford to have the blame pinned on them. They will move together and learn to live with each other one more time."
Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.