Furloughed government union workers demonstrate on the side of Constitution Avenue in Washington DC.
WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama yesterday cancelled two Asia stops next week and could also miss a pair of summits, after a government shutdown inflicted a new dent in his policy pivot to the Pacific.
An embarrassed Obama postponed visits to the Philippines and Malaysia, Southeast Asian nations at the heart of his effort to rebalance US diplomatic and military weight towards the rising region.
His attendance at the Apec summit in Bali and the East Asia summit in Brunei — where he could meet leaders of powers like Russia and China, key players on crises and showdowns with Syria, Iran and North Korea — were also in doubt.
Obama had hoped to use the trip to make progress in talks on a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. His decision will complicate US efforts to present itself as an indispensable Pacific power and could boost quiet criticism of its long-term commitment to the region from foes like China.
The White House said the shutdown, triggered by a budget row with Republicans, made it impossible to send logistics teams to Manila and Kuala Lumpur ahead of the president’s massive traveling entourage. It also admitted that the imbroglio in Washington had dealt a blow to Obama’s goals abroad.
It appears unlikely that Obama, due to leave for Asia on Saturday, would travel if the government remains closed. Travel office staff in the White House have been furloughed in the shutdown.
Obama called Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Philippine President Benigno Aquino to tell them he would be unable to visit and promised to reschedule.
Meanwhile, Obama called congressional leaders to a White House meeting, providing a glimmer of hope for movement on day two of a crippling government shutdown. The White House is squaring off with Republican rivals in Congress over how to fund federal agencies, many of which are now closed, leaving 800,000 furloughed workers in the lurch and a fragile economy at risk.
Obama wants a straightforward temporary spending bill to end the first shutdown in 17 years, while Republicans have sought to tie the measure to a dismantling or delay of his signature health care law. Neither side has blinked, and Americans are exasperated with the inability of their elected officials to break the impasse.
“Most of the time you can see an end game,” Republican Senator Johnny Isakson told MSNBC. “Right now there’s no end game in sight.” An hour after those comments aired, the White House announced a meeting with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders to address the standoff. The office of House Speaker John Boehner, Obama’s primary political foe, said it represented a potential “start to serious talks between the two parties.” It was not immediately clear if the talks amounted to a possible breakthrough or were merely for appearances.
Furious tourists are locked out of Washington museums and monuments, as well as national parks and landmarks like the Statue of Liberty in New York. Cancer research and treatment at the world-class National Institutes of Health has ground to a halt.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in scolding Republicans whom he blamed for the shutdown, said some 200 patients — including 30 children mostly needing cancer treatment — were denied access to NIH on Tuesday.
The roiling political and fiscal drama threatens to affect the global economy as well, with European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi warning that a US shutdown “is a risk if it is protracted”. “It would be a risk not only for the US, but also the world economy,” Draghi said.
Complicating the budget gridlock, Congress has just over two weeks to strike a deal on raising the country’s debt ceiling and avoid a painful default.
US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has warned that US borrowing authority will reach its cap by October 17, and he informed Congress that Treasury “has begun using the final extraordinary measures” available to pay US bills. Without a raising of the debt ceiling, Treasury’s money ceases to flow, triggering a default.