The chambers of Congress were empty Sunday but the blame game was already well under way in advance of a likely government shutdown.
Neither the House or Senate was in session as the clock ticked toward a Monday midnight deadline to fund the government, but politicians on both sides of the aisle took to the airwaves to try to shift blame for the crisis away from their party.
In an afternoon press conference that offered fresh video in advance of Sunday's evening news, House Republicans placed blame squarely on Democrats in the Senate, which adjourned Friday after passing its version of a funding bill later rejected by the GOP-led House.
"What they're trying to do is shut down the government.," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., during the event -- billed as a rally -- on the Senate steps. "This is what President Barack Obama wants. This is all part of his game plan."
As both parties brace for likely public wrath if and when a shutdown occurs, Republicans are eager to frame the budget standoff as the product of Democrats' insistence on preserving the Obamacare law, which they insist isn't ready for implementation. Democrats say that the GOP is out of line by tying a proposed Obamacare delay to an unrelated funding bill.
Early polling indicates that the GOP may bear slightly more of the blame in the public's eyes, but that both sides are poised to take a hefty punch of public disapproval on the chin.
A CBS/New York Times poll out Wednesday showed that 44 percent of Americans say congressional Republicans would be to blame for a shutdown, compared to 35 percent who say President Barack Obama and Democrats are at fault. An earlier Pew Research Center study showed that 39 percent say the GOP would be responsible and 36 percent would pin a shutdown on Obama.
Hence the jockeying.
On Sunday, GOP leaders blasted the chamber's Democratic leaders for being on "vacation" at the nation's time of need and accused a defiant president of being unwilling to cede ground on his signature health care law.
On CBS's Face the Nation, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said the president has rejected GOP appeals to "fix" the law.
"He should come to Congress, we should negotiate how to fix or make Obamacare less bad," he said. "We are the party that's willing to compromise. They're the party that says 'no way, we're not touching Obamacare.'"
Cruz, a leading opponent of the law who has reportedly pushed House Republicans to oppose GOP leaders' proposals, said a shutdown would be the fault of Senate Majority Harry Reid; he mentioned Reid by name 17 times during an interview on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday.
"If we have a shutdown, it will be because Harry Reid holds that absolutist position and essentially holds the American people hostage," Cruz said.
Democrats, often wearily citing the law's survival of a Supreme Court challenge, say they're open to changes to the law but that a delay tied to the government funding is irresponsible.
Top Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois, also appearing on CBS, said he's not opposed to considering a rollback of the law's tax on medical devices, for example, but that those discussions should take place after the funding dispute is resolved.
"I'm willing to look at that, but not with a gun to my head, not with the prospect of shutting down the government," he said.
Highlighting the lack of high-level negotiations between the White House and Congress, Republicans also excoriated the president Sunday for spending part of weekend on the golf course even as they rolled out a funding resolution that would have delayed Obamacare for a year and repealed a tax on medical devices.
"We are not shutting the government down," House Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy said on Fox News Sunday. "While the president was out golfing and the senators went home, we were here working till 1 a.m. to make sure we didn't shut the government down, that we put a funding bill across."
But the House's late night came after Senate action on Friday -- which was delayed because of objections by Obamacare foes Cruz and Mike Lee.
On Thursday, Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican, suggested that the delay -- which pushed back House action by at least a day -- was motivated by the Tea Party leaders' hopes to maximize media coverage of the standoff.
"It's my understanding that my two colleagues, who I respect, have sent out e-mails around the world and turned this into a show possibly," Corker said on the Senate floor.
Cruz, on NBC's Meet the Press, urged Reid to call the Senate back for votes on Sunday, after the House rejected a Senate-passed measure to keep the government funded and restore funding for the health care law.
"I am here in Washington, D.C., because I want to be here and ready to work," Cruz said. "And there's no reason the Senate should be home on vacation at a time [like] this."
House Speaker John Boehner said the same in a statement Sunday afternoon.
"If the Senate stalls until Monday afternoon instead of working today, it would be an act of breathtaking arrogance by the Senate Democratic leadership," Boehner said. "They will be deliberately bringing the nation to the brink of a government shutdown for the sake of raising taxes on seniors’ pacemakers and children’s hearing aids and plowing ahead with the train wreck that is the president’s health care law."
Pointing to dismal poll numbers for the Republican Party in the wake of the 1995 and 1996 government shutdowns, Democrats hope that the rival party could face public outcry and even lose some of their political power after annoyed constituents go to the polls in 2014.
"It wouldn't be the worst thing for Democrats if [Republicans] tried to shut the government down," potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said in New York on Tuesday. "We've seen that movie before, and it didn't work out so well for those so-called obstructionists," she added.
Republican Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho agreed Sunday that a shutdown would mean a political punch to the GOP -- but he argued that the Democrats would really be its cause.
"The reality is the Democrats think that this is a loser for us. I think everybody agrees that this is a loser for us if the government shuts down," he said on Meet the Press. "And that's why I think the president of the Democrats want to shut down the government."
First published September 29 2013, 3:10 PM