WASHINGTON — Prospects for a swift end to the 4-day-old partial government shutdown all but vanished Friday as lawmakers squabbled into the weekend and increasingly shifted their focus to a midmonth deadline for averting a threatened first-ever default.
"This isn't some damn game," said House Speaker John Boehner, as the White House and Democrats held to their position of agreeing to negotiate only after the government is reopened and the $16.7 trillion debt limit raised.
House Republicans appeared to be shifting their demands, de-emphasizing their previous insistence on defunding the health care overhaul in exchange for re-opening the government. Instead, they ramped up calls for cuts in federal benefit programs and future deficits, items that Boehner has said repeatedly will be part of any talks on debt limit legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also said the two issues were linked. "We not only have a shutdown, but we have the full faith and credit of our nation before us in a week or ten days," he said.
Reid and other Democrats blocked numerous attempts by Sen. Ted Cruz to approve House-passed bills reopening portions of the government. The Texas Republican is a chief architect of the "Defund Obamacare" strategy and met earlier this week with allies in the House and an aide to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to confer on strategy.
In a lengthy back-and-forth with Reid and other Democrats, Cruz blamed them and the White House for the impasse and accused them of a "my way or the highway" attitude.
But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., likened the Republican strategy to "smashing a piece of crockery with a hammer, gluing two or three bits back together today, a couple more tomorrow, and two or three more the day after that."
For all the rhetoric, there was no evident urgency about ending the partial shutdown before the weekend.
The Republican-controlled House approved legislation restoring funds for federal disaster relief on a vote of 247-164. Another allowing the resumption of the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program was approved 244-164.
Saturday's agenda called for passing a bill to assure post-shutdown pay for an estimated 800,000 furloughed federal employees off the job since mid-day Tuesday, then turning off the lights on the House floor until Monday night to allow lawmakers to fly home for two days.
After issuing a string of veto threats against GOP spending bills, the White House did not object to the one to assure pay for furloughed employees.
There was no doubt about the political underpinnings of the struggle. Democrats and most Republicans have assumed the GOP would be hurt by a shutdown, citing the impact of the last episode, in 1996.
But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said of Democrats, "I don't think they've poll tested 'we won't negotiate. I think it's awful for them to say that over and over again." His words recorded on videotape, he said, "I think if we keep saying we wanted to defund it (the new health care law), we fought for that and now we're willing to compromise on this we're going to win this, I think."