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Obama won’t bow to ransom — but shows some flexibility as GOP shifts a bit

President Barack Obamtalks about shutdown debt ceiling standoff  news conference Thursday White House.  |  Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama talks about the shutdown and debt ceiling standoff at a news conference Thursday at the White House. | Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

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Updated: November 10, 2013 6:43AM



WASHINGTON — With a fiscal crisis looming, President Barack Obama vowed again not to negotiate with Republicans, but in a change of tone at a Tuesday press conference, he opened the door for talks with the GOP on other issues once the debt limit is raised and funds approved to end the partial federal government shutdown.

“Members of Congress, and the House Republicans in particular, don’t get to demand ransom in exchange for doing their jobs,” Obama said.

Even with the fiery rhetoric, Obama, showed a bit more flexibility. The president said he would agree to a short-term measure on the debt ceiling and government funding if it buys time for lawmakers to agree to a bigger deal. The other notable shift is coming from Republicans, who are talking more about debt, deficit reduction and budget than defunding or delaying Obamacare, the president’s signature health care law.

“And so if they want to do that, reopen the government, extend the debt ceiling. If they can’t do it for a long time, do it for the period of time in which these negotiations are taking place,” Obama said.

“And two of their very basic jobs are passing a budget and making sure that America’s paying its bills. They don’t also get to say, you know, unless you give me what the voters rejected in the last election, I’m going to cause a recession,” Obama said.

The shutdown started Oct. 1 after House GOP leaders demanded derailing Obamacare as the price Democrats and the president had to pay to fully fund the federal government past the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.

The press conference, Obama’s first since Aug. 9 and in the White House briefing room, was added to his schedule in the morning after House Speaker John Boehner stepped up his demand that the president negotiate over the shutdown and the need for Congress to raise the debt limit by Oct. 17 or risk the first-ever default in U.S. history.

While GOP members have differences among themselves over Boehner’s strategy to tie government funding to trying to kill off Obamacare — an effort doomed from the start — there is unity in wanting Obama to bargain.

“The end game is to negotiate,” Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) told me. “You can’t get a deal if you are not willing to negotiate. Right now the President and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid have both said they will not negotiate. The American people do not accept that. With divided government, you have to negotiate to get a solution.”

Once past the twin crises, “then serious negotiations could proceed around every item in the budget,” Obama said. The Obama White House had been looking for a debt ceiling raised high enough to last about a year, but that may be politically unrealistic.

Against this backdrop, Obama continued to press for up-or-down votes in the House on the debt ceiling and funding, with no strings attached. Boehner is blocking those votes because the measures would pass — on the strength of Democratic votes — with the byproduct making it very difficult for Boehner to maintain credibility as a leader.

“The fact that right now there are votes, I believe, to go ahead and take this drama off the table should at least be tested. Speaker Boehner keeps on saying he doesn’t have the votes for it, and what I’ve said is put it on the floor, see what happens. And at minimum, let every member of Congress be on record,” Obama said.

On Tuesday morning, Obama phoned Boehner to outline what he essentially said at the opening of his press conference: no negotiations over the two main items, with the door open for other matters.

Boehner, speaking at his own press conference in the Capitol after Obama’s presser, described the call as “a pleasant conversation, although I have to say I was disappointed that the president refuses to negotiate.

Asked if he would back what would amount to at the least a short-term, no-strings-attached deal, Boehner said, “What the president said today was if there is unconditional surrender by Republicans, he’ll sit down and talk to us. That’s not the way our government works.”

The House, with GOP votes, passed a bill to create a bipartisan House-Senate “working group” to deal with fiscal issues — a proposal dead on arrival in the Senate and shrugged off by Obama as not a key element to any solution to the deadlock.

While there is a lot of focus on Oct. 17 as the next key deadline, Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) told me that the next pressure point are the days before Oct. 15 — the next federal time “where checks normally would go out for people who work in government. And so we are going to do everything we can to encourage negotiation. “

Even if Obama engages in indirect negotiations with Republicans — that is, about deals to be cut after government fully reopens and the debt ceiling raised — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) highlighted a more pressing problem for House and Senate GOP lawmakers: They don’t have agreement yet between themselves over what their “ask” is.

“We need to have a negotiated position,” McCain told reporters in the Capitol. “It’s one thing to say we want to negotiate. It’s something else to say, here’s what we want.”

The approaches of the two sides can be boiled down to their dueling Twitter hash tags: “LetsTalk” for the Republicans and “LetsVote” for the Democrats.

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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