WASHINGTON -- Concern deepened in financial markets Tuesday about the potential for a U.S. default as President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner clashed publicly without breaking an impasse over how to reopen the government and pay the nation's bills.
Short-term borrowing by the Treasury Department became twice as expensive Tuesday as it had been the day before, one of the most significant signs of alarm in the bond markets since the financial crisis of 2008.
The stock market, meanwhile, continued the steady slide that began in mid-September, when Mr. Boehner, R-Ohio, embraced a right-wing strategy for using the budget battles to try to dismantle Mr. Obama's signature health care initiative. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index fell 20.67 points to 1,655.45 Tuesday. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped nearly 160 points to 14,776.53 and has lost nearly 6 percent of its value since hitting a one-year high Sept. 18.
In a hastily planned news conference at the White House, Mr. Obama warned that default would be "insane, catastrophic, chaos," and demanded that Mr. Boehner take the weight of that threat off the U.S. economy. Once that happens, the president said, "I am happy to talk with him and other Republicans about anything."
But Mr. Obama said he also told Mr. Boehner in a phone call Tuesday morning that "having such a conversation -- talks, negotiations -- shouldn't require hanging the threats of a government shutdown or economic chaos over the heads of the American people."
An hour later, Mr. Boehner fired back that Republicans will not yield until Mr. Obama comes to the bargaining table. "I didn't come here to shut down the government, and I certainly didn't come here to default on our debt," the speaker told reporters at the Capitol. But Mr. Obama, he said, is seeking "unconditional surrender by Republicans" before "he'll sit down and talk. That's not the way our government works."
Both men spoke in calm tones, striving to appear reasonable. But with the shutdown in its second week and a critical deadline for government borrowing just eight days away, anxiety was building in Washington and on Wall Street.
Just last month, investors were willing to make short-term loans to the U.S. government virtually for free. On Tuesday, the one-month Treasury bill, which paid 0.13 percent interest on Monday, spiked to 0.27 percent -- the highest rate since 2008. Borrowing for slightly longer durations has also become much more expensive in recent days.
"What we're seeing is a greater concern that the Congress and the White House will not be able to reach an agreement in order to avoid tripping over the debt ceiling," said John M. Canavan, an analyst with Stone & McCarthy Research.
Mr. Obama spoke to reporters and answered questions for well over an hour Tuesday, stressing that the consequences of congressional inaction on the debt limit would be far more devastating than lawmakers' failure to fund federal agencies past Oct. 1.
"In an economic shutdown," he said, "every American could see their [401(k) plans] and home values fall, borrowing costs for mortgages and student loans rise, and there would be a significant risk of a very deep recession at a time when we're still climbing our way out of the worst recession in our lifetimes."
Mr. Boehner has insisted that the House will not agree to reopen the government or raise the debt limit without concessions from Democrats. Mr. Obama challenged him to test that assertion by putting legislation to a vote. "At minimum, let every member of Congress be on record," the president said. "And if it fails, and we do end up defaulting, I think voters should know exactly who voted not to pay our bills, so that they can be responsible for the consequences that come with it."
On Tuesday, Senate Democratic leaders were laying plans to do just that. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced a bill that would suspend enforcement of the debt limit through the end of next year, after the 2014 midterm elections. All 54 Senate Democrats -- even those facing tough races -- appeared to be falling into line behind the measure.
Senate Republican leaders, however, were optimistic about holding their ranks and denying the bill the 60 votes it needs to overcome a GOP filibuster, a test that could come as soon as Saturday.
House GOP leaders, meanwhile, unveiled a new strategy for handling the crisis, proposing to create a 20-member bipartisan "working group" to end the shutdown and raise the debt limit. The working group, to be composed of Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate, would be charged with brokering agency funding levels for fiscal 2014, perhaps replacing deep cuts known as the sequester with cuts to federal health and retirement programs.
The measure passed the House 224 to 197, with most Democrats voting no. But Senate Democrats quickly dismissed it as "supercommittee 2.0" -- after the failed fiscal negotiations of 2011 -- and noted that the group's charge includes nothing about raising taxes on the wealthy, a Democratic priority. Before the House could even vote, the White House threatened to veto the measure.
The House also approved a measure to ensure that federal prison guards, U.S. Capitol Police officers and staffers at other agencies now on the job would be paid as usual for the shutdown's duration. A separate bill the House passed over the weekend to provide back pay to furloughed personnel is still awaiting a Senate vote.
First Published October 8, 2013 8:00 PM