WASHINGTON - Congress entered the fifth day of the government shutdown Saturday with one goal in mind - to ensure that the 800,000 government employees currently on furlough will receive back pay once the shutdown is ended.
The Republican-controlled House unanimously approved 407-0 the Federal Employee Retroactive Pay Fairness Act on Saturday morning. President Obama and Congressional Democrats have opposed several proposals offered by House Republicans this week that would fund only small slices of the federal government. But the president and Democratic leaders embraced this move, with the Senate possibly approving it by the end of the day.
After a week that saw leaders from both chambers blaming each other for the shutdown and unable to reach any accord, the agreement on federal workers' back pay was a rare moment of accord in an otherwise intractable standoff over government spending, the Affordable Care Act and the debt limit.
On Saturday morning, Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representatives took to the floor to sing the praises of federal workers and applaud the rare moment of bipartisanship.
"The issue is fairness," Rep. Jim Moran, R-Va., said during morning debate. "It's just wrong for hundreds of thousands of federal employees not to know whether they're going to be make to make their mortgage payment. Many of them live from paycheck to paycheck."
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said federal employees have already faced enough economic turmoil in recent years, with pay freezes and a constant cloud of uncertainty hanging over their livelihoods. So he encouraged his colleagues to approve their funding guarantee to ensure they don't turn into "collateral damage" in the shutdown debate
"This bill is the least we should do," Cummings said.
But hopes of a compromise to end the shutdown seemed unlikely over the weekend. During an interview with the Associated Press, Obama defended the shaky rollout of his signature health care law and said any modifications to the program would have to be negotiated after the shutdown is resolved.
"There are enough votes in the House of Representatives to make sure that the government reopens today," he said. "And I'm pretty willing to bet that there are enough votes in the House of Representatives right now to make sure that the United States doesn't end up being a deadbeat."
Flinching by either side on the shutdown might be seen as weakening one's hand in an even more important fight looming just over the horizon as the combatants in Washington increasingly shifted their focus to a mid-month deadline for averting a first-ever default.
"This isn't some damn game," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said as the White House and Democrats held to their position of agreeing to negotiate only after the government is reopened and the $16.7 trillion debt limit raised. Republicans pointed to a quote in The Wall Street Journal from an anonymous White House official that "we are winning ... It doesn't really matter to us" how long the shutdown lasts.
At issue in the shutdown is a temporary funding measure to keep the government fully open through mid-November or mid-December. More than 100 stopgap continuing resolutions have passed without much difficulty since the last shutdown in 1996. But Tea Party Republicans, their urgency intensified by the rollout of health insurance marketplaces this month, are demanding concessions in Obama's health care law as their price for the funding legislation, sparking the shutdown impasse with Democrats.
"I was disappointed when certain parts of the federal government were forced to shut down because Senate Democrats refused to make any changes whatsoever to the deeply flawed health care law known as Obamacare," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn in the GOP's weekly address. "Republicans are eager to end the shutdown and move ahead with the fiscal and economic reforms that our country so urgently needs."
Obama has repeatedly said he won't negotiate on the temporary spending bill or upcoming debt limit measure, arguing they should be sent to him free of GOP add-ons. Congress, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, routinely sent Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, "clean" stopgap spending bills and debt-limit increases.
"The American people don't get to demand ransom in exchange for doing their job," Obama said in his address. "Neither does Congress."
House Republicans appeared to be shifting their demands, de-emphasizing their previous insistence on defunding the health care overhaul in exchange for re-opening the government. Instead, they ramped up calls for cuts in federal benefit programs and future deficits, items that Boehner has said repeatedly will be part of any talks on debt limit legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats blocked numerous attempts by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to approve House-passed bills reopening portions of the government. The Texas Republican is a chief architect of the "Defund Obamacare" strategy and met earlier this week with allies in the House and an aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to confer on strategy.
In a lengthy back-and-forth with Reid and other Democrats, Cruz blamed them and the White House for the impasse and accused them of a "my way or the highway" attitude.
But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., likened the Republican strategy to "smashing a piece of crockery with a hammer, gluing two or three bits back together today, a couple more tomorrow, and two or three more the day after that."
The shutdown led the White House to scrub a presidential trip to Asia, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics delayed its customary monthly report on joblessness as impacts of the partial shutdown spread.
Ironically, Boehner and the leadership more than two weeks ago outlined a strategy that envisioned avoiding a shutdown and instead using the debt limit bill as the arena for a showdown with Obama. Their hope was to win concessions from the White House in exchange for raising the debt limit and agreeing to changes in two rounds of across-the-board cuts, one that took place in the budget year that ended on Sept. 30 and the other in the 12 months that began the following day.
The strategy was foiled by the "Defund Obamacare" movement that Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Tea Party groups generated over the summer.
Contributing: David Jackson and The Associated Press