WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON (AP) — His Asia trip was scrapped, most of his staff has been furloughed and he's refused to hold negotiations with House Republicans. So on Tuesday, President Barack Obama was looking for something to fill his time.
His destination? The White House briefing room, where reporters and photographers packed in for a hastily arranged news conference, eager for any sign of a breakthrough in Washington's latest round of gridlock. But there was little to say that hadn't already been said.
That didn't keep Obama from saying it all again. He promised that his opening statement would be brief — then proceeded to speak for nearly 15 minutes before taking questions.
"The greatest nation on earth shouldn't have to get permission from a few irresponsible members of Congress every couple months just to keep our government open or to prevent an economic catastrophe," he said.
It was a point Obama made over and over throughout an afternoon news conference that stretched beyond the one-hour mark.
The president appeared at one point to provide an opening for a resolution of the impasse, saying his offer to negotiate with Republicans would still stand even if they only passed short-term spending and debt ceiling bills. But less than an hour later, that pathway was shut down by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who said the president was asking for "unconditional surrender" from Republicans in exchange for negotiations.
The standoff between Obama and House Republicans has largely stranded the president in Washington with little to do. He had planned to spend the week on a four-country trip to Asia promoting stronger trade ties with the U.S. But the White House canceled the trip so Obama could stay in Washington during the partial government shutdown, which is now in its second week.
When Obama's travel plans changed, the White House found itself staring at an empty schedule — and plenty of empty desks, where the furloughed staffers who would have been busy planning new events and trips normally would be sitting. That's left the remaining staff planning the schedule one day at a time and scrambling to find opportunities for the president to be in the public eye without taxing resources that are already stretched thin.
Obama bemoaned the cancellation of his travel to Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, a trip that included meetings at two regional economic summits the U.S. plays a substantial role in organizing.
"It's almost like me not showing up to my own party," he said. Secretary of State John Kerry stood in for Obama.
Obama's absence from the economic meetings has raised speculation that China will try to take advantage of the American political mess and make the case the countries in the region that the U.S. cannot be counted on.
"I'm sure the Chinese don't mind that I'm not there right now," the president quipped. However, he said he did not expect there to be long-term damage to America's relationship with Asia as long as lawmakers resolve the current dispute quickly.
The president also tackled a case argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday that could eliminate limits on campaign contributions by the biggest individual donors. He railed against cutting the caps, saying it would shut ordinary Americans out of the process.
But Obama, who set campaign fundraising records in both of his runs for the White House, acknowledged that "there's nobody who operates in politics that has perfectly clean hands on this issue."
The president, who held his last full news conference in August, typically takes seven or eight questions from reporters from major news organizations. But in an unusual move, Obama answered queries from 11 reporters, including some from news outlets that don't normally get the chance to question the president.
That spurred some mild griping in the briefing room from some of those left off the list. The president pleaded innocence.
"I'm just going through my list, guys," he said.
Seeking to shift the blame elsewhere, he motioned to his press secretary Jay Carney. "Talk to Jay," he said.
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