WASHINGTON (AP) - 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.
There was, however, relief Saturday for thousands of furloughed Pentagon workers and the promise of back pay for all federal workers who have been forced off the job.
The Pentagon on Saturday ordered at least 90 percent of its roughly 350,000 furloughed civilian employees back to work, significantly reducing the number of sidelined federal workers. In all, about 800,000 federal workers had been furloughed.
Defense Department said the recall is based on a law passed by Congress this week that allows the Pentagon to end furloughs for "employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members." Republicans had complained that the administration was slow to bring back those workers in light of the law.
The larger stalemate over reopening the federal government persists. 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 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.
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.
Boehner, R-Ohio, and Obama say they abhor the idea of a default. But they and their respective parties have not budged from positions that bar a solution.
Obama says he will not negotiate tax and spending issues if they are linked to a debt-ceiling hike. Boehner and his GOP allies say they will not raise the ceiling unless Democrats agree to deep spending cuts.
Many House Republicans also demand curbs to Obama's signature health care law as a condition of reopening the government. The president and his allies call the demand absurd.
In interviews, key lawmakers and aides said they don't know how the impasses might be resolved. But they laid out several possibilities, all of which face huge political impediments:
- Boehner yields. The speaker could pass bills to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling - with few or any concessions by Democrats - if he decided to anger many conservatives in his 232-person caucus and rely heavily on Democrats' votes.
That's what Boehner did to mitigate massive tax increases at the beginning of the year and to give aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy. Most House Republicans opposed both measures.
But if Boehner were to enact something as contentious as a debt-ceiling hike with a "minority of the majority," he would face a GOP insurrection that could cost him the speakership. Many Democrats say he should do that.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Boehner "is going to have to decide to stand up to a reckless faction of his party for the good of the country. That's just the way this ends."
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