The House on Thursday passed bills to pay National Guard troops and fund Veterans Affairs services during the government shutdown and signaled that it would take up a bill to make sure all federal employees — including those on furlough — eventually get paid.
With the shutdown extended into a third day and showing few signs of ending, House Republicans have settled on a strategy of trying to blunt some of the high-profile ill effects of the stoppage and to win some bipartisan votes, hoping that will give them the upper hand in the battle with Senate Democrats.
But the shutdown fight already is being overshadowed by the battle over the federal debt limit, which must be raised later this month.
Several news outlets reported that House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio has told Republicans privately that he would be willing to rely on Democratic votes to pass a debt increase. That would undercut many in his own party who believe the GOP must extract more changes to federal spending as part of a debt deal.
"This could be the beginnings of a significant breakthrough," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, trying to encourage Mr. Boehner to split with his party.
Before they get to the debt fight, Republicans first must find a way out of the spending battle, where they have settled on the piecemeal strategy to try to pressure Democrats.
Their latest move involves 10 spending bills to fund Border Patrol, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the intelligence community and other key areas where safety or security could be damaged by the expiration of government funding Tuesday morning.
Top intelligence officials warned Congress on Wednesday that the furloughs and shutdown were making members of the intelligence community vulnerable to being recruited by enemy agents.
"We are going to go forward with trying to address situations that are in critical stages," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.
The employee bill in particular has widespread support among Democrats and labor unions. They have said workers count on paychecks and shouldn't be penalized for the stalemate in Washington.
The bill would guarantee that all federal employees get paid even if they were furloughed during the shutdown.
"Fairness is the compelling reason for doing this. These folks didn't bring this about. They're trying to do their job, they want to come into work every day," said Rep. James P. Moran, the Virginia Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican. Both of them represent tens of thousands of federal employees.
Furloughed employees were paid after the 1995-1996 shutdowns. Without Mr. Moran's bill, however, there is no guarantee that would happen this time.
For now, though, the Republican strategy has had little success in the Senate, despite the House approval of bills to fund the National Institutes of Health, the national parks, the Smithsonian Institution, services for veterans and pay for military reserve and National Guard troops.
The veterans bill passed Tuesday on a 259-157 vote, with 35 Democrats joining Republicans in support, and the military pay bill passed 265-160 with 36 Democrats siding with Republicans.
But Democratic leaders in the Senate blocked all four of those bills Thursday, maintaining their insistence that either the entire government be funded or none of it will be funded.
"I, we, support veterans and parks and NIH and all these different elements of government that are closed. But we also are not going to choose between veterans, cancer research, disease control, highway safety or the FBI," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
Mr. Reid has reined in his chamber and rejected every House Republican proposal, but has offered no bills to break the logjam.
He and fellow Senate Democrats have said they will accept only one solution: that the House approve Senate-passed legislation that would fund basic government operations through Nov. 15 at an annualized rate of $986 billion. That bill is known in Washington-speak as a continuing resolution, or "CR."
Sen. Schumer said there can be no negotiations with Republicans while the government is shut down because that would set a bad precedent.
"If we were to give in while the government was shut, to a demand, what do you think happens on the debt ceiling? What do you think happens when the CR has to be renewed?" Mr. Schumer said.
President Obama also tried to increase pressure on Republicans while speaking at a construction company in suburban Maryland.
"The only thing that is keeping the government shut down, the only thing preventing people from going back to work is that Speaker John Boehner won't even let the bill get a 'yes' or 'no' vote because he doesn't want to anger the extremists in his party. That's all. That's what this whole thing is about," Mr. Obama said.
Democrats said the House, if it puts the Senate bill to a vote, would pass the legislation with significant Republican support and the crisis would end.
Mr. Cantor countered that it wasn't clear the bill would pass, though he has refused to put it to a test.
Instead, House Republicans said that the individual bills they are passing would go straight to the president's desk if the Senate approves them.
Mr. Reid said Democrats already have compromised by agreeing that the broad spending bill be written at an annualized discretionary spending level of $986 billion, which is tens of billions of dollars less than Democrats had planned.
He said Mr. Boehner agreed in a private conversation to pass a bill if it is at that level, and Mr. Reid indicated that Mr. Boehner has failed to live up to his word.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.