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.
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 last 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.
How it could end
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."
Both sides yield a bit. Democrats conceivably could offer a few concessions that might help Boehner attract a slim majority of his House Republicans. For instance, they could agree to lift a tax on medical devices that helps fund the new health law or approve the Keystone pipeline to carry oil from Canada.
Any such decisions, however, would violate Obama's repeated vow not to negotiate on the debt ceiling and the government shutdown.
Besides, it's far from clear that such limited compromises would win most House Republicans' support.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Republicans would demand much deeper spending cuts and other concessions before raising the debt ceiling.
"You can't ask those Republicans to just put their political life on the line for nothing," Cole said.
Grand Bargain. The political gridlock has revived talk of a possible bipartisan "grand bargain" on major budget issues. Republicans would have to agree to higher taxes, which they fiercely oppose. And Democrats would have to swallow cuts in the growth of Social Security and Medicare benefits, which most Democrats are strongly against.
Obama and Boehner failed to reach such an accord in 2011 and again last December. Leaders of both parties say problems that killed those negotiations remain, and it's nearly impossible to resolve them before Oct. 17.
Obama told The Associated Press in an interview Friday he would be willing to negotiate with Republicans on health care, deficit reduction and spending — but only if Boehner allows votes to reopen the government and increase the nation's borrowing limit.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., laughed out loud when told that Democrats will negotiate on budget matters after the debt ceiling is raised unconditionally.
"If they are judging whether or not they're going to move based upon politics, and we're judging whether or not we're going to move based upon principle, it's going to be very, very difficult to find a way out of this," Mulvaney said.
Obama yields. Many House Republicans predict the president will give ground to avoid a government default. They point to his past concessions, such as agreeing to raise income taxes only on households earning $450,000 or more, rather than the $250,000 cutoff he had campaigned for.
Democrats believe Obama will hold fast. The president "is not going to negotiate the full faith and credit of the United States," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C.
The government defaults. If both parties stick to their promises, default appears inevitable. The economic impact and public backlash might prompt lawmakers to hastily agree to raise the debt ceiling and start paying all bills again.
Democrats note that lawmakers quickly reversed course five years ago when the Dow dropped 778 points after the House rejected a bank bailout bill.