Government shutdown ‘is a threat to America’s defence’

The first top-level talks to break the policy deadlock between Democrats and Republicans took place yesterday, as President Barack Obama invited Congressional leaders of both parties to the White House to discuss the government shutdown and the looming crisis over raising the federal debt ceiling, due to be hit in two weeks' time.

The announcement of the talks - immediately accepted by the Republican Speaker John Boehner - came as a surprise, at the very moment it seemed both sides were digging in for a long battle with possibly disastrous consequences, as the smaller issue of the shutdown became entangled with the far more serious one of the borrowing ceiling.

Failure by Congress to approve an increase could force the Treasury into a catastrophic default on US debt, throwing global financial markets into turmoil.

Meanwhile, top US intelligence officials yesterday warned that the shutdown "seriously damages" their ability to protect the country. The current situation was a "dreamland" for foreign spies, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate committee, saying that some 70 per cent of intelligence employees had been placed on unpaid leave.

"This is not just a Beltway issue," Mr Clapper added, referring to the Washington DC political universe. The damage was "insidious", affecting the agencies' capability "to support the military, to support diplomacy, and to support our policymakers".

But it was far from clear whether the afternoon meeting, to be attended by the majority and minority leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate, would open the way to a deal. Even after the talks were announced, the language of both sides was as hostile and intransigent as ever.

Republicans were maintaining their stance that any stopgap measure to fund the government, and thus end the shutdown, be accompanied by a delay in implementation of health care reform. Democrats continue to insist on a "clean" bill, with no conditions, while the White House has declared that "Obamacare" - whose most important provisions are now coming into effect - is non-negotiable.

Other developments also pointed to a prolonged shutdown. In a curtailment of his Asia trip that starts this weekend, Mr Obama is still to attend an Apec summit in Indonesia, but will skip the subsequent legs in Malaysia and the Philippines. This will see him back in Washington by the end of next week, as the deadline nears.

The best hope of bringing an early end to the deadlock lies in the outrage of the public, and a rupture in the Republican party, held by Americans to be primarily responsible. So far Mr Boehner, fearful of a right-wing uprising that could cost him his job, has refused to assert his authority over House Republicans. But a significant body of

House moderates, as well as most Republicans in the Senate, argue that the intransigence of Tea Party and other conservative hardliners is leading the party to disaster.

Seeking to heal these differences and mollify public opinion, Republican leaders have come up with a new plan to restore funding in three areas where the shutdown has generated special fury - the national parks across the country now barred to tourists, veterans' programmes, and federally financed services in Washington DC.

The anger was evident this week as visiting veterans, many of them in wheelchairs, broke through barricades around the World War II memorial on the National Mall, closed like other federal parks and museums.

But even if they are approved by the Republican majority House, the exemptions faced certain defeat in the Democratic-led Senate. "We want the release of all hostages, not just a few of them," one senator said.

"Instead of opening up a few government functions, the House of Representatives should reopen all of the Government," the White House added.

In the meantime both parties are playing the blame game, trying to win the crucial battle for public opinion. Republican hardliners believe that public dislike of Obamacare will ultimately win the day.

For the moment, though, Democrats are far happier, confident that their opponents are on the wrong side of the argument. For the moment at least, that seems to be the case. According to the Quinnipiac poll, an overwhelming 72 per cent oppose a shutdown to stop health care reform.

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