The shutdown of the American government began to have global implications today as President Barack Obama cancelled plans to attend economic summit meetings in Asia so that he could focus on trying to end the increasingly fractious budget stand-off at home.
With most federal agencies emptied of employees for a fourth day, there was meanwhile scant sign of progress. Republican House Speaker John Boehner erupted at a news conference at what he perceived as political arrogance on the part of the White House as the crisis deepens. “This isn’t some damn game,” he said.
While Mr Obama had little choice but to pull out of both the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit in Bali on Monday and the subsequent East Asia summit in Brunei, the cost to the US could be high both in terms of economic outreach to the region and in terms of urgent diplomacy. Among those he had been expected to meet was President Vladimir Putin of Russia to take stock of progress on Syria.
“We are disappointed that there will be no meeting,” Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told a Russian news agency last night. “There is a great need in our bilateral relations for a dialogue at the highest level.” John Kerry, the Secretary of State, will stand in for Mr Obama at the two meetings.
The White House swiftly blamed the Republicans for the pullout by the President, who had originally been set to visit the Philippines and Indonesia on the same trip. “This completely avoidable shutdown is setting back our ability to create jobs through promotion of US exports and advance US leadership and interests in the largest emerging region in the world,” said the White House spokesman, Jay Carney.
US officials have also withdrawn from free trade deal talks with the EU due to take place in Belgium next week.
Mr Boehner took public umbrage at a comment attributed in the Wall Street Journal to a senior administration official apparently saying “it doesn’t matter how long” the shutdown goes on, because “we’re winning”. In tones of high indignation, the Speaker responded: “This isn’t some damn game. The American people don’t want their government shut down, and neither do I.”
Democrats make no secret of their belief that most of the blame for the shutdown is being placed on the Republican leadership, which has, to a large part, been pushed into attaching conditions on a deal to both ending the shutdown and accepting an increase in the amount of money the government can borrow to pay its bills, known as the debt ceiling.
The Treasury says it will run out of money by 17 October. In particular, the Tea Party wing of the Republicans has been determined to delay or at least partially de-fund the healthcare reform programme known as Obamacare which has actually come into being for most Americans this month.
“It’s very hard to negotiate with the Republicans when they can’t negotiate with themselves,” Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat Minority Leader in the House, quipped last night.
While he continues to take a hard line in public, Mr Boehner has indicated to Republican colleagues privately that he will seek a deal at least on the debt ceiling, without which the US could find itself defaulting on its debt. With the issues of the budget and debt ceiling increasingly becoming conflated in Washington, that would indicate that no deal on either issue is likely to come before the middle of the month.