Obama and Boehner Have a Phone Chat, But No End To Shutdown Impasse

Boehner says no 'lines in the sand,' but Obama insists on 'clean' vote to reopen the government

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President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner spoke on the phone Tuesday morning about the continuing government shutdown and looming debt-ceiling crisis, but there was no immediate indication that they made any progress in resolving the Washington impasse.

Both the White House and Boehner’s office confirmed the 10:45 a.m. call, the first direct talk between the two since they met at the White House last Wednesday. With the shutdown in its second week and the country set to hit its borrowing limit on Oct. 17, the White House said Obama reiterated that he’s only willing to negotiate on the budget and other issues “after the threat of government shutdown and default have been removed.” A Boehner spokesman said Obama repeated that “he won’t negotiate on a government funding bill or debt limit increase.” Neither side described what Boehner said during the call.

Obama called Boehner after the Speaker seemed to soften slightly his negotiating tack, telling reporters that he isn’t “drawing any lines in the sand”, a tonal shift from earlier explicit demands that Obama defund or delay his signature health care reform law and agree to big spending cuts.

“All we’re asking for is to sit down and have a conversation,” Boehner said. “There’s no reason to make it more difficult to bring people to the table. There’s no boundaries here, there’s nothing on the table, there’s nothing off the table. I’m trying to do everything I can to bring people together and have a conversation.”

But Obama is digging in, seemingly convinced Boehner will fold once the prospect of an unprecedented debt default looms larger. He said later in the day, once again, that Republican demands are tantamount to ransoming the country’s economic health.

“The American people do not get to demand a ransom for doing their jobs,” Obama said during an appearance at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.

The White House said Obama asked Boehner during their phone call to hold a vote to reopen the government without conditions “immediately” and “allow a timely up-or-down vote in the House to raise the debt limit with no ideological strings attached.”

With the shutdown dragging on, some Republicans were saying there’s a way out in the form of a sequel to the so-called “super committee” that made a failed effort to reach a grand bargain on deficit reduction in 2011. House Republicans unveiled a measure to create such a “bicameral working group on deficit reduction and economic growth.”

Senior GOP lawmakers continued to push Democrats to negotiate.

“I think what’s going to break is, sooner or later, the sides are going to sit down and talk,” Republican House Majority Deputy Whip Tom Cole said. “But nobody is going to give up leverage before they actually start talking. And that’s basically what the President is asking the Speaker to do.”

But Senate Democrats were already signaling that they might move a so-called “clean” debt-limit increase to the floor this week, and the party was holding firm that budget negotiations should only take place after the government is reopened and the debt ceiling raised.

Democrats scoffed at the idea of a new super committee.

“Having served as a member of that super committee, there was nothing super about it.,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra told TIME. “It was just punting. It’s another way of getting out of doing what you should. There is no reason why we can’t just get our work done now.”

And Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murry said the proposal for a new super committee-like panel to resolve the standoff wasn’t serious.

“If this is a joke, the American people aren’t laughing,” she said in a statement. “The last super committee failed because Republicans insisted on protecting the rich from paying a penny more in taxes, but at least then the goal was to avoid a crisis before it happened. This Republican gimmick is intended to keep two crises going while they again refuse to make any concessions.”

Alex Rogers, Alex Altman and Zeke J Miller contributed reporting