Obama, Boehner Stake Out Positions On Shutdown

President Obama made his case for reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling at a White House news conference Tuesday afternoon. It was his first news conference in several weeks. House Speaker John Boehner spoke at the Capitol for about five minutes.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The federal government is shut down. The federal borrowing authority is about to expire. And for the moment, everything hangs on this question: The timing of when competing sides talk.

INSKEEP: President Obama says he'll negotiate budget issues with Republicans after they reopen the government and extend the federal debt limit - at least for a short time. House Republicans who influence Speaker John Boehner want concessions before.

MONTAGNE: If they do massage the timing of any talks, the two sides would then face a question of substance. Eight days before the U.S. hits the debt ceiling, Boehner's fractious membership has yet to agree on exactly what they'd want if they did get negotiations going.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on a day when officials talked about talking.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The day began with a phone call between House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama. Each side put out a statement describing the conversation. And for once, the parties agreed: the call changed no one's mind. A few hours later, Obama took to the White House briefing room and urged Republicans to end these crises.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let's lift these threats from our families and our businesses, and let's get down to work. It's not like this is a new position that I'm taking here.

SHAPIRO: Not at all. In fact, Obama has restated this position nearly every day. He says he'll only negotiate with Republicans after they fund the government and raise the nation's borrowing limit, no strings attached.

OBAMA: We can't make extortion routine as part of our democracy. Democracy doesn't function this way.

SHAPIRO: In his familiar calm tone, the president called the House GOP irresponsible hostage-takers who are willing to derail the U.S. economy if they don't get everything they want.

OBAMA: They don't also get to say, you know, unless you give me what the voters rejected in the last election, I'm going to cause a recession. That's not how it works.

SHAPIRO: There are two issues here. The partial government shutdown is bad enough. Obama says that's nothing compared to what could come next. On October 17th, the U.S. runs out of borrowing authority to pay its bills. The president says that could be catastrophic.

OBAMA: This is not something we should even come close to fooling around with. And so, when I read people saying this wouldn't be a big deal; we should test it out - let's take default out for a spin and see how it rides.

SHAPIRO: He used the word "insane."

Speaker Boehner seems to agree that a default would be serious.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I didn't come here to shut down the government. And I certainly didn't come here to default on our debt.

SHAPIRO: But he said Republicans will not unilaterally disarm, either.

BOEHNER: What the president said today was: If there's unconditional surrender by Republicans, he'll sit down and talk to us. That's not the way our government works.

SHAPIRO: Boehner noted that Obama negotiated over the debt ceiling two years ago. That negotiation more or less failed; the U.S. nearly defaulted and the country lost its AAA credit rating.

Obama said he won't try that again and he's surprised that Republicans want to.

OBAMA: I would've thought that they would've learned the lesson from that as I did, which is we can't put the American people and our economy through that wringer again.

SHAPIRO: So today it's back to seeing who blinks first. There may be some slim opportunities for a breakthrough. In Congress, lawmakers are considering creating a House-Senate working group to cut a deal. Nobody's very optimistic about it, though.

At the White House yesterday, Obama said a short-term deal to open the government and raise the debt ceiling would be enough to get him to the negotiating table.

OBAMA: What I've said is that I will talk about anything.

SHAPIRO: That's even if another deadline looms just a few weeks or months away. Some people are urging the president to raise the debt limit without help from Congress. But legal experts disagree over whether the move is constitutional. And for that reason, Obama says he won't do it. He said it would make U.S. Treasury bonds legally suspect.

OBAMA: If you're buying a house and you're not sure whether the seller has title to the house, you're going to be pretty nervous about buying it.

SHAPIRO: Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is voting on bills that would reopen popular parts of the government bit by bit. There's been one for national parks, one for veterans' affairs, and so on. Democrats in the Senate have blocked them and Obama says he would not sign them anyway.

OBAMA: Of course I'm tempted, because you'd like to think that you could solve at least some of the problem if you couldn't solve all of it.

SHAPIRO: But he said the problem is that leaves you in a country where the only government programs that get funded are the high-profile ones that someone does a news story about. So for the time being, both the high-profile and the invisible parts of government will remain in limbo, while the highest-profile leaders in Washington muddle through one more crisis.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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