By David Espo
---- — WASHINGTON (AP) — Its approval ratings scraping bottom, Congress took no discernible steps yesterday to end the nine-day partial government shutdown or to head off a threatened default by the national Treasury.
Instead, the House passed legislation that the Obama administration already had rendered unnecessary, while Speaker John Boehner and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi met face-to-face — and promptly disagreed even about which side had requested the get-together.
Across the Capitol, the Senate marked time under 18th century rules, focusing its attention on a test vote — next weekend — on a $1 trillion increase in the debt limit to avert a default.
“Enough is enough,” said Barry Black, the Senate chaplain who has delivered a series of pointed sermonettes in recent days as lawmakers careen from crisis to crisis.
With Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on tap to testify before lawmakers on Thursday, officials said he was expected to reiterate that Congress needed to raise the government’s borrowing limit by Oct. 17 to be sure of preventing default.
How bad would that be? The nation’s largest manager of money market mutual funds was taking no chances. It said it had been selling off government debt holdings over the past couple of weeks and no longer holds any that comes due around the time the nation could hit its borrowing limit. Fidelity Investments expects Congress to take the necessary steps to avoid default, but “we have to take precautionary measures,” said Nancy Prior, president of Fidelity’s Money Market Group.
Leaders of both political parties have warned that a financial default could plunge the economy into recession, cause interest rates to rise and home values to plummet.
But at least one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, said a default wouldn’t be the worst calamity to befall the country.
“Insolvency and bankruptcy” would be worse, he said, warning that that would be the result of yet another increase in the debt limit without attaching measures to bring down the federal budget deficit.
The partial shutdown ground on, although an Associated Press-GfK poll suggested the impact was anything but uniform. Only 17 percent of those polled said they or their households had experienced any impact, while 81 percent said they had not.
Who’s fault? Some 62 percent said Republicans were mostly or entirely to blame for the partial shutdown, which began on Oct. 8, while 49 percent said as much for President Barack Obama.
There was widespread agreement on one point. The country is widely dissatisfied with elected lawmakers.
A new Gallup poll put approval for Congress at 11 percent, a mere one in every nine adults. The AP-GfK survey made it 5 percent approval — and only 3 percent among independents, whose votes are the main prize in next fall’s midterm elections. Nationally, a whopping 83 percent of adults disapprove of Congress’ actions.
Inside the Capitol, neither private meetings nor public votes offered any hint of progress toward ending the latest gridlock.
Republicans are seeking negotiations on budget, health care and other issues as the price for reopening the government and raising the debt limit. Obama and Democrats say no talks unless legislation is first passed.
The House voted 252-172 to reopen the Federal Aviation Administration. Democrats generally opposed the measure and the White House issued a veto threat, saying the government should be reopened all at once, not on a piecemeal basis.
There was a brief moment of unity when the House voted 425-0 to let the Pentagon pay death benefits to the families of fallen U.S. troops.
That was the topic that drew Black’s attention in his daily prayer at the opening of the Senate’s session. “When our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to families of children dying in faraway battlefields, it’s time for our lawmakers to say, ‘Enough is enough,” he said.
Controversy accompanied the subject.
Republicans said Congress had passed and Obama had signed legislation last week to permit the payments, but the Defense Department said otherwise. As Republican leaders were pushing toward a vote on the bill making it explicit, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a charity would pick up the death benefit costs instead.
In a delicate minuet, Pentagon officials said they were not permitted to solicit the funds, but could accept an offer if one were made unbidden. That eased the pressure on Senate Democrats and the White House, who have generally refused to support measures to ease the impact of the partial shutdown without ending the disruption entirely.
In the House, Speaker Boehner of Ohio sat down with the Democratic leader, Pelosi of California, and their seconds-in-command.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said, “Reps. Pelosi and Hoyer (Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat) asked for the meeting, and as we’ve stated publicly, we’re willing to meet with any Democratic leader who is willing to talk.”
Pelosi issued a statement saying, “Yesterday, when I was asked by the Speaker to meet today. ...”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, neither side reported any progress toward compromise after the 45-minute session.
There was more snarling about a White House invitation to House Republicans for a meeting on Thursday.
All 232 House GOP lawmakers were invited, yet Republicans said only 18 would attend, a delegation comprised of members of the leadership and committee heads.
Speaking on behalf of the commander in chief, White House press secretary Jay Carney seemed less than pleased.
“President Obama is disappointed that Speaker Boehner is preventing his members from coming to the White House,” he said.
Even the Democrats, generally united, had trouble getting along.
Senate Democrats used the Senate steps as a backdrop to pressure Republicans to end the partial shutdown.
But Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray, a Democrat, was off-message. He urged Democrats at least to pass legislation allowing the city to use its own tax receipts during the partial shutdown.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered some advice to His Honor.
“I’m on your side. Don’t screw it up, OK?” he was overheard saying.