WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama conferred with congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday for the first time since a partial government shutdown began, but there were no signs of progress toward ending an impasse that has idled hundreds of thousands of federal workers and curbed federal services around the country.
Obama "refuses to negotiate," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters after private talks that lasted more than an hour. "All we're asking for here is a discussion and fairness for the American people under Obamacare."
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, "We're locked in tight on Obamacare" and neither the president nor Democrats in Congress will accept changes in that health care law as the price for spending legislation needed to reopen the government.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., center, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, left, make their way through a crowd of reporters on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
With the nation's ability to borrow money soon to lapse, Republicans and Democrats alike said the shutdown that has furloughed an estimated 800,000 federal workers could last for two weeks or more, obliging a divided government to grapple with both issues at the same time.
The Republican-led House approved legislation to reopen the nation's parks and the National Institutes of Health, even though many Democrats criticized them as part of a piecemeal approach that fell far short of what was needed. The bills face dim prospects in the Senate, and the White House threatened to veto both in the unlikely event they make it to Obama's desk.
"What we're trying to do is to get the government open as quickly as possible," said the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. "And all that it would take is us realizing we have a lot in agreement."
An attempt by Democrats to force shutdown-ending legislation to the House floor failed on a 227-197 vote, with all Republicans in opposition. That left intact the tea party strategy of calling for changes to the nation's health care overhaul as the price for essential federal financing, despite foot-dragging from Republican moderates.
Democrats were scathing in their attacks.
"The American people would get better government out of Monkey Island at the local zoo than we're giving them today," said Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.
The stock market ended lower as Wall Street CEOs, Europe's central banker and traders pressed for a solution before serious damage is done to the economy. Chief executives from the nation's biggest financial firms met Obama for more than an hour Wednesday, some of them plainly frustrated with the tactics at play.
In an interview with CNBC before meeting with lawmakers, Obama said he would not negotiate with Republicans until the government is reopened and Congress votes to raise the debt limit.
"If we get in the habit where a few folks, an extremist wing of one party, whether it's Democrat or Republican, are allowed to extort concessions based on a threat (to) undermine the full faith and credit of the United States, then any president who comes after me, not just me, will find themselves unable to govern effectively," he said.
The White House said Obama would have to truncate a long-planned trip to Asia, calling off the final two stops.
The shutdown also intruded into the race for governor of Virginia.
Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat, said he supported legislation to guarantee retroactive pay for furloughed federal employees. The Republican contender, Ken Cuccinelli, called on members of Congress to decline their pay as long as the shutdown lasts.
Obama's call to lawmakers to meet drew a quizzical response from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A spokesman, Don Stewart, said, "we're a little confused as to the purpose."
Boehner was "pleased the president finally recognized that his refusal to negotiate is indefensible," said his spokesman, Brendan Buck. "It's unclear why be having this meeting if it's not meant to be a start to serious talks between the two parties."