WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama failed to break a budget impasse with Republicans during dramatic late-night talks, though he said the two sides were creeping toward a deal to avert a government shutdown.
Obama met Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid late on Wednesday, seeking to defuse a hugely significant showdown before a midnight Friday deadline for federal funding to run dry.
If no deal is reached, vast parts of the US government will be shuttered, forcing combat troops to go without paychecks and national parks to close in a shutdown that could also damage the fragile economic recovery.
“I remain confident if we are serious about getting something done, we should be able to complete a deal and get it passed and avert a shutdown,” Obama said about the “frank” and “constructive” 90-minute talks.
“I am absolutely convinced we can get this done. There is no reason why we should have a government shutdown.”
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He was briefing reporters around 10:45 pm (0245 GMT Thursday), not to declare victory in the drawn-out fight, but to urge both major parties to “keep on pounding away at this thing.”
The talks, designed to pull both sides back from the political brink and fund the government through October 1, came after Obama told Republicans to “quit playing games” while they questioned his leadership.
But in a sign tempers may be cooling, Boehner and Reid later appeared together before reporters outside the White House after leaving the talks.
“We did have a productive conversation this evening. We do have some honest differences but I do think we made some progress,” said Boehner.
“But I want to reiterate there is no agreement on a number… there is an intent on both sides to continue to work together to try to resolve this.
“No one wants the government to shut down.”
Neither side would identify where the differences remained.
Republicans however are demanding sweeping budget cuts in domestic spending and foreign aid and policy changes, while Obama has offered cuts, but has dug in his heels at cutting crucial education and environmental programs.
The faceoff is the most overt clash yet between Obama and Republicans, who captured the House in an electoral rout in November, and could go a long way to defining the early terrain of the president’s 2012 reelection bid.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found only 28 percent of Republicans want their leaders in Congress to compromise over the budget cuts, compared to 68 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of political independents who said they wanted their leaders on Capitol Hill to do so.
Officials said around 800,000 federal workers could be temporarily laid off if the government shuts down, and warned the economy could get a hit, just as growth is slowly picking up.
“At a time when you’re struggling to pay your bills and meet your responsibilities, the least we can do is meet our responsibilities to produce a budget,” Obama said in Pennsylvania.
Boehner had earlier sharpened his tone after a meeting of the Republican House caucus that included conservative hawks demanding huge spending cuts from party leaders who must eventually find a way to make a deal with Senate Democrats on a budget.
“I like the president personally, but a president needs to lead — he didn’t lead on last year’s budget, and he clearly isn’t leading on this year’s budget,” Boehner said.
Obama said a shutdown could halt approvals of home loans backed by the government and close off small business grants.
Aides said it would stop paychecks for troops abroad, though they would eventually get paid in full once it was over.
Paper tax refunds would be delayed, but electronic filing and rebates would continue to operate. Federally funded museums and the National Zoo in Washington would also be shut.
Washington would meanwhile lose the last weekend of its annual cherry blossom festival, a hit with tourists.
However, many government operations, including US military mission overseas and Department of Homeland Security functions would go on as they are deemed vital to national security, a senior official said.
Democrats complained that Boehner had broken an agreement in principle to cut $33 billion and was now seeking $40 billion, while the speaker’s office denied there had ever been a deal on the first figure.