Top lawmakers to meet Obama for US shutdown talks

President Barack Obama on Wednesday called congressional leaders to a White House meeting on resolving the US government shutdown, but prospects for a quick solution seemed bleak, with neither side giving ground. The White House is squaring off with Republican rivals in Congress over how to fund federal agencies, many of which remain closed on day two of a crippling shutdown which has left some 800,000 furloughed workers in the lurch and a fragile economy at risk. Obama wants a straightforward temporary spending bill to end the first shutdown in 17 years, while Republicans have sought to tie the measure to a dismantling or delay of his signature health care law. Neither side has blinked, the bickering has continued, and Americans are exasperated with the inability of their elected officials to break the impasse. "Most of the time you can see an end game," Republican Senator Johnny Isakson told MSNBC. "Right now there's no end game in sight." Signs of incremental movement emerged, with Democrats pledging to appoint formal negotiators to thrash out a long-term budget -- provided that the Republicans agree to an immediate six-week federal spending measure with no anti-Obamacare provisions. All eyes will turn to the White House at 2130 GMT when Obama meets in the Oval Office with his chief political rival, House Speaker John Boehner, as well as top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell to address the standoff. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi will also attend. Boehner's office claimed an early victory over the talks, saying it showed Obama was finally ready to negotiate and that the meeting represented a potential "start to serious talks between the two parties." Prospects for the talks seemed uncertain as the White House said that Obama would not negotiate with Republicans on conditions for opening the government or raising the debt ceiling. "He's not going to engage in that kind of negotiation because he does not want to hold or have held the openness of the government, the functioning of the government, or the world and American economy hostage to a series of demands," spokesman Jay Carney said. Congress has just over two weeks to strike a deal on raising the country's debt ceiling and avoid a painful default. US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has warned that US borrowing authority will reach its cap by October 17, and he informed Congress that Treasury "has begun using the final extraordinary measures" available to pay US bills. Without a raising of the debt ceiling, Treasury's money ceases to flow, triggering a default. The roiling political and fiscal drama threatens to affect the global economy as well, with European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi warning Wednesday that a US shutdown "is a risk if it is protracted." "It would be a risk not only for the US, but also the world economy," Draghi said. Meanwhile, furious tourists are locked out of Washington museums and monuments, as well as national parks and landmarks like the Statue of Liberty in New York. Cancer research and treatment at the world-class National Institutes of Health has ground to a halt. Reid, in scolding Republicans whom he blamed for the shutdown, said some 200 patients -- including 30 children mostly needing cancer treatment -- were denied access to NIH on Tuesday. "They were turned away," Reid said. The fallout has already caused Obama to shorten his long-planned Asia trip, scrapping stops in Malaysia and the Philippines that were due to begin this weekend, so he could attend to the crisis at home. The president's attendance at summits in Indonesia and Brunei was also in doubt. Reid fired off a letter to Boehner, saying that while the two were "at loggerheads," he saw a path forward to get government reopened. Reid said that if the House passed a straight spending bill now, he pledged to appoint conferees to thrash out a broader 2014 budget -- and all fiscal issues including tax reform would be on the table. "Let's not go through this again," senior Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer added. "If we can solve all this in one package, that's so much the better." But the offer hit a snag. When Democrats made the formal proposal on the Senate floor, Republicans objected to going to conference. With stakes critically high, Republican lawmakers were scrambling to at least get parts of government up and running. The Republican-led House of Representatives was voting Wednesday on five measures that would fund popular operations, including services for veterans, opening national parks and museums, and keeping key health research going. Democrats swatted the bills away as incremental funding bids ultimately aimed at leaving the health care law known as "Obamacare" high and dry. "These piecemeal bills, they're not a way out," Reid said, sneering that Republicans were offering "one 'cockamamie' can't-pass idea after another." "It's time for my Republican colleagues to do a gut check," Reid said. Obama on Tuesday accused House conservatives of waging an "ideological crusade" by making government funding conditional on gutting his health care law. Boehner has chosen to side with the renegade Tea Party faction of his party rather than risk his job by attempting to pass a straight funding resolution stripped of political poison pills.

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