Republicans and Democrats headed back to the House on the fifth day of a government shutdown Saturday approving back pay for 800,000 furloughed federal workers but making little progress toward resolving its budget standoff with the Senate.
The House's unanimously passed bill guaranteeing workers back pay offered a rare moment of bipartisan unity in what has otherwise remains a bitter, drawn-out showdown.
With neither side showing any willingness to compromise, both are blaming the other for the lack of progress, messages they amplified in post-vote media events.
House Republicans continue to demand concessions on Obamacare and spending cuts, which Senate Democrats and the White House have rejected, pointing to a series of polls showing many Americans blame Republicans for the shutdown.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the House GOP leadership, along with Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are working on a "grand bargain" package that would resolve both the government shutdown and an upcoming fight over whether to raise the nation's debt limit.
Under such a deal, Republicans would approve a government-funding bill that included no other policy add-ons and a debt-limit increase through next year, as long as Democrats agree to long-term changes in entitlement programs and the federal tax code. House GOP leaders are weighing whether to demand smaller changes to Obamacare as well, such as repealing the medical device tax or eliminating an advisory board that was given authority to reshape Medicare under the new law.
Democrats have already rejected such offers.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said after the vote that Democrats are willing to drop their opposition to forming a conference committee that would allow House Republicans to negotiate with Senate Democrats if the GOP will pass a government funding bill that leaves Obamacare untouched.
“This crisis could be over in hours if the speaker and Republicans could just take yes for an answer until continuing to be the party of no,” she said.
Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to exploit fissures in the Republican Party to force a vote on a bill that would automatically fund the government and end the shutdown if it attracts enough Republican support. But GOP leaders have blocked the so-called discharge petition, sponsored by Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., from coming to a vote.
The Lankford bill, which has garnered the support of several conservative Republicans in the past, would fund the government for 120 days then exact a 1 percent cut in federal spending every 90 days until Congress agrees on a spending bill. It would require Republicans to approve a spending bill that would fund the government through Nov. 15, but makes no changes in Obamacare
Democrats were touting the plan since Thursday and say they have enough Republican support to pass it.
“We're talking to Republicans – this is a plan that could work,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said.
Discharge petitions are rare and seldom gain the solid majority of support – 218 votes – needed to make it onto the House floor.
When first hearing of the strategy, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, ridiculed it.
“Ah, the old discharge petition move,” he tweeted. “Zero percent of the time it works every time.”
Still, a government shutdown that extends a week or longer is highly unusual and 20 centrist House Republican have already said publicly that they want to end this standoff as soon as possible.
Boehner is allowing House members to return home on Sunday after holding them in Washington for two weeks to work on the budget standoff.
Republican leaders feared that allowing Republicans to skip a day might lead to a crumbling of party unity in the face-off with Democrats, but lawmakers were already showing signs of exhaustion as the shutdown dragged on.