As Shutdown Drags, Boehner Shifts Focus From Health Law

What started out as an attempt by Tea Party Republicans to use a government funding bill to defund the president's health care law seems to have evolved into a Republican effort to mitigate the negative effects of the two-day-old government shutdown. None of the bills pushed by House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday or Wednesday even mention the Affordable Care Act, but rather just fund those portions of the government that are popular with the public, like national parks.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Day two of the government shutdown is nearing its finish with no end in sight. President Obama is gathering the four top congressional leaders to the White House this evening, but it's really just one person he'll need to persuade, House Speaker John Boehner.

Speaker Boehner leads the Republican majority, some 230 members out of 435 representatives. But right now it appears a small group of about 30 Tea Party-backed conservatives may be setting the agenda. Joining us now from the Capitol is NPR's Tamara Keith with the latest. And Tamara, first the news today: after weeks of saying that there's nothing really to talk about on the government funding bill, President Obama invites leaders to the White House to talk.

I mean, should we really read anything into that?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I wouldn't read too much into it. The government is shut down. The president can't just hang out and not talk to them. So they need to at least have a conversation. But a White House official said that basically the president will be urging the House to pass a clean CR, which has been - a clean funding bill to reopen the government, which has been the president's position for a long time.

And the president and Democrats say they are not willing to negotiate on funding the government or the debt ceiling. So a spokesman for the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, put out a statement. He said we're a little confused as to the purpose of this meeting. And there was a similar message from House Speaker John Boehner's office, saying we're pleased the president finally recognizes that his refusal to negotiate is indefensible; it's unclear why we'd be having this meeting if it's not meant to start serious talks between two parties, but there was a hint of sarcasm there.

CORNISH: Just a hint. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives was back, actually, trying to pass smaller funding bills that dealt with specific programs that are popular with the public, right - national parks, for instance and cancer research. But any chance that this effort will work any better than it did yesterday?

KEITH: Yes. Well, I mean it depends on your definition of working. The bills are going to pass the House, largely with Republican votes, but then they will go to the Senate, where Democrats have already rejected them, as has the White House. They say just pass a bill funding the government temporarily and that would open everything, the popular things and the things that you don't see.

House Republicans say the goal is to restore parts of the government, but there are also these political benefits, which is that they can beat up Democrats and say they don't really care about veterans or cancer research. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says the House is going to keep voting on these things.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: What we're trying to do is to get the government open as quickly as possible, and all that it would take was us realizing we have a lot in agreement in common. We can pass these bills. We will pass them out of the House today and we will begin a process of bringing forward these bills.

KEITH: And you may hear some noise behind him. There were about 10 protestors down below this outdoor press conference holding signs and chanting as loudly as they could, pass the budget, let us work, and then later stop the shutdown, serve the people. And these were federal workers who were furloughed and had nothing else to do.

CORNISH: Tamara, you also have Senate Democrats trying to put the pressure on the House. Here's the number three Democrat, Senator Chuck Schumer from New York, making this point about Speaker Boehner.

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER: We are asking the Republicans to open the government, and all eyes are on Speaker Boehner. The whole country knows that he is the one person who has the ability to reopen the government.

CORNISH: Tamara, you've said that if he decided to bring a simple funding bill to the floor, it would pass and pass easily, but is he feeling any more pressure to do that?

KEITH: By some counts there are as many as 17 moderate Republicans who've now said publicly that they would pass the Senate's clean government spending bill, but that's not enough really to put that much pressure on the speaker. Meanwhile, he's hearing from those 30 hardliners or purists who say absolutely not. If you were to pass the Senate's clean spending bill, you would fund the president's healthcare law.

And the Republican position in the House is still hold firm. They do not want that law to go forward.

CORNISH: That's NPR's congressional correspondent Tamara Keith. Tamara, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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