WASHINGTON — A rare flash of bipartisanship Saturday served as a cruel tease to those hoping Congress is moving toward reopening the government and averting an unprecedented default on the federal debt in less than two weeks.
Only two days after House Speaker John Boehner raised hopes by telling colleagues he won’t let the nation go into default, key members of both parties conceded that no one has presented a plausible plan for avoiding it. Instead, they continued to bicker and to ponder the chasm between two warring parties, each of which seems convinced it’s on the winning side morally and politically.
Boehner, asked Saturday whether Congress was any closer to resolving the impasse, replied: “No.” Aides close to Boehner say he has not figured out how to end the gridlock.
Even the day’s top bipartisan achievement — agreeing to pay about 800,000 furloughed federal employees for the work days they are missing — was a thin victory. Congress made the same deal after the mid-1990s shutdowns, and Saturday’s 407-0 vote was widely expected.
Still, it triggered the sort of derisive quarreling that has prevented Congress from resolving the larger funding and debt dilemmas.
“Of all the bizarre moments” involved in the debate, said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, “this may be the most bizarre: that we will pay people not to work.” He called it “the new tea party sense of fiscal responsibility.”
House Republicans said they want to ease the pain from the partial shutdown. Democrats said Congress should fully re-open the government and let employees work for the pay they’re going to receive.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Saturday the Democratic-controlled Senate will approve retroactive pay for furloughed workers, although he didn’t specify when.
Meanwhile Saturday, the Pentagon ordered most of its roughly 400,000 furloughed civilian employees back to work.
The politics of the 5-day-old partial government shutdown have merged with partisan wrangling over the graver issue of raising the federal debt limit by Oct. 17. If that doesn’t happen, the White House says, the government will be unable to pay all its bills, including interest on debt. Economists say a U.S. default would stun world markets and likely send this nation, and possibly others, into recession.