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No breakthrough in US shutdown

Democrats and Republicans continue to play the blame game.

The White House in Washington, DC. Picture: Stock.XCHNG

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama met with Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress on Wednesday to try to break a budget deadlock that has shut wide swathes of the federal government, but there was no breakthrough as both sides blamed each other.

After more than an hour of talks, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said Obama refused to negotiate, while House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused Republicans of trying to hold the president hostage over Obamacare.

Reid said Obama told Republicans "he will not stand" for their tactics.

There was little to encourage hope for a quick solution to the two-day-old shutdown and hundreds of thousands of federal employees remained off the job without pay.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratic-led Senate offered token concessions that were quickly dismissed by the other side. Obama, meanwhile, scaled back a long-planned trip to Asia.

Republicans have tried to tie continued government funding to measures that would undercut Obama's signature healthcare law. Obama and his Democrats say that is a non-starter.

"The president reiterated one more time that he will not negotiate," Boehner told reporters after the White House meeting. "All we're asking for here is a discussion and fairness for the American people under Obamacare."

The shutdown, which took effect Monday at midnight, has raised questions about Washington's ability to carry out its most essential duties.

Though it would do relatively little damage to the world's largest economy in the short term, global markets could be roiled if Congress also fails to raise the debt limit before borrowing authority runs out in coming weeks.

The shutdown has closed landmarks like the Grand Canyon, cut off government economic data reports and prevented some cancer patients from receiving cutting-edge treatment.

United Technologies Corp, which makes Sikorsky helicopters and other items for the military, said it would be forced to furlough as many as 4,000 employees if the US government shutdown continues through next week, due to the absence of government quality inspectors.

OBAMA EXASPERATED

"Am I exasperated? Absolutely I'm exasperated. Because this is entirely unnecessary," Obama told CNBC television in an interview before meeting the congressional leaders. "I am exasperated with the idea that unless I say to 20 million people, 'You can't have health insurance', these folks will not reopen the government. That is irresponsible"

The US Army's top general said the shutdown was significantly harming day-to-day operations, and intelligence leaders say it is undermining their ability to monitor threats.

The uncertainty in Washington has forced Obama to scale back an Asia trip that was designed to reinforce US commitment to the region.

Despite the shutdown, Boehner's Republicans have failed to derail Obama's controversial healthcare law, which passed a milestone on Tuesday when it began signing up uninsured Americans for subsidised health coverage.

The government on Wednesday scrambled to add computer capacity to handle an unexpectedly large number of Americans logging onto new online insurance marketplaces.

The Republican-controlled House passed and sent to the Senate on Wednesday a funding bill that would re-open the National Institutes of Health and another bill to reopen shuttered federal parks and museums.

The House was expected to vote Thursday on measures to fund veterans' care, the District of Colombia and the Army Reserve.

The shutdown fight is rapidly merging with a higher-stakes battle over the government's borrowing power that is expected to come to a head soon.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said the US will exhaust its $16.7 trillion borrowing authority no later than October 17.

The government could have difficulty paying pension checks, interest charges and other bills after that point.

Many Republicans see the debt limit vote as another opportunity to undercut Obama's healthcare law or extract other concessions - an approach that business groups say could lead to disaster.

Some Democrats have begun to consider asking Obama to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling on his own - a move that could lead to years of court battles. The White House has said that approach is not feasible.

The US dollar stayed under pressure as Asian trading began on Thursday while share markets flatlined.

The last shutdown in 1995 and 1996 cost taxpayers $1.4 billion, according to congressional researchers.

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