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Partisan gamesmanship keeps shutdown debate in standstill

The House will vote over the weekend on a new series of measures to restore popular federal services ended by the government shutdown, holding out against voting on a full restoration of spending despite pressure from President Barack Obama.

As House Republicans gathered Friday, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, signaled his continued opposition to bringing up a vote for a "clean," six-week extension of government spending at current levels -- even though it appeared such a measure could pass with the support of most Democrats and a handful of Republicans.

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Rather, partisan gamesmanship maintained its stranglehold on Washington as Republicans sought to regain some leverage in the protracted fiscal standoff as a series of polls showed the public has placed more blame for the shutdown with the GOP.

Boehner emerged Friday to seize on an anonymous White House official’s quote in a Wall Street Journal report shrugging off the length of the shutdown because the administration was “winning.”

“This isn’t some damn game!” Boehner exclaimed after a closed-door meeting with Republicans, a pronouncement meant as much to improve the GOP’s bargaining position as anything else.

A short time later, Obama said he will not negotiate with Republican leaders "with a gun held to the head of the American people." He and the vice president visited a sandwich shop near the White House offering specials to furloughed federal workers.

In the meantime, Republicans announced that they planned to stage a series of votes on Saturday to pass 11 bills in total reinstating spending on programs like border safety, Head Start programs and emergency and disaster preparedness programs. The GOP legislation builds on votes earlier this week to restore spending for national parks and veterans affairs, among other programs.

The Republican strategy was as much about messaging as it was about actually seeking to re-open some of the most visible and alarming casualties of the federal government shutdown, which entered its fourth day on Friday with no immediate resolution in sight.

The GOP has endured days of attacks from Democrats characterizing Republican leadership -- and Boehner in particular -- as the lone impediment to reopening the government.

"There are enough Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives today that, if the speaker of the House, John Boehner, simply let the bill get on the floor for an up-or-down vote, every congressman could vote their conscience -- the shutdown would end today," President Barack Obama said Thursday in suburban Washington.

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Democrats have gleefully marshaled growing statements from House Republican lawmakers supporting a clean stopgap spending measures as evidence that such a measure could pass -- with Democratic backing -- if Boehner would only allow a vote. (However, few Republicans have broken ranks on procedural votes in the past days that would have allowed such legislation to come to a vote in the House, which would be a stinging rebuke to the GOP leadership.)

Republicans, in turn, have tried to make their piecemeal spending bills as irresistible as possible to Democrats, targeting some favorite social programs for restored funding. Some House Democrats did, in fact, break ranks on Thursday; 35 Democrats voted with the GOP to approve restored funding for veterans benefits, and 36 Democrats backed legislation to restore pay for military reservists.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has led the charge against this approach, taking a hard-line stance against the Republican strategy. Reid has argued that passing any of the bills would amount to picking and choosing winners and losers in the shutdown, and has blocked consideration of the Republican bills. Moreover, Obama has vowed to veto these mini-funding bills, reasoning that the best way to guarantee spending for the programs would be to reopen the government in whole.

The legislative action was little more than a cover, though, for partisan gamesmanship which continued through the shutdown's fourth day.

In the Senate, Reid said that his colleagues -- and he, himself -- had failed to live up to the chamber's standards of decorum as partisan rancor has washed over Capitol Hill in recent days.

"I think we've all let things get away from us a little bit," he said.

The shutdown appeared increasingly likely, though, to extend through the Oct. 17 deadline by which lawmakers must raise the nation's debt ceiling. The extended showdown, ironically, raised hopes for a possible grand bargain along the lines Boehner and Obama had come close to cinching in 2011.

“I don't believe that we should default on our debt,” Boehner said Friday amid reports that he had told fellow Republicans that he would rely on Democrats, if necessary, to pass legislation to prevent a fault on the national debt in two weeks.

An overarching deal could be one of the few options available to political leaders from both parties to escape their stalemate without having to seem as though they caved first.