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Obama blames Boehner for ongoing government shutdown

By Tom Watkins, CNN
October 5, 2013 -- Updated 1855 GMT (0255 HKT)
  • "We can vote to open the government today," Obama tells the AP
  • The nation is in its fifth day of a federal shutdown
  • But Obama does not expect the nation will default
  • The president also talks Obamacare, Iran and Redskins

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama in an exclusive interview with the Associated Press released Saturday laid responsibility for the government shutdown squarely at the feet of House Speaker John Boehner.

"We can vote to open the government today," Obama told the Associated Press in the wide-ranging interview. "We know that there are enough members in the House of Representatives -- Democrats and Republicans -- who are prepared to vote to reopen the government today. The only thing that is keeping that from happening is Speaker Boehner has made a decision that he is going to hold out to see if he can get additional concessions from us."

Much of the government has been shut down -- more than 800,000 workers furloughed, national parks closed, programs for programs from child care to space exploration shuttered -- for five days. And it's likely to remain closed for several days if not weeks more, House Republicans concede.

Despite public pressure to reach a resolution -- and statements from politicians that they want to -- Washington's political machinery has been gridlocked.

And there's little indication there will be any breakthrough until at least mid-October, when the next economic crisis comes up over whether Congress will give the federal government the OK to increase how much it can borrow or default on its debt.

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Obama, in the AP interview, said he did not expect the latter to occur.

"There were at least some quotes yesterday that Speaker Boehner is willing to make sure that we don't default," he said in the interview, which was taped Friday. "And just as is true with the government shutdown, there are enough votes in the House of Representatives to make sure that the government reopens today.

"And I'm pretty willing to bet that there are enough votes in the House of Representatives right now to make sure that the United States doesn't end up being a deadbeat. The only thing that's preventing that from happening is Speaker Boehner calling the vote."

Boehner, speaking to reporters Friday, tried to ratchet up pressure on Obama to end the crisis by acceding to his demand that he negotiate changes to Obamacare as part of any deal. Fuming about a Wall Street Journal report that cited an unidentified Obama administration official as saying "We are winning," Boehner said, "This isn't some damn game!"

Much of the opposition to the administration's efforts has been led by sympathizers of the tea party, who are seeking a reduction in the national debt and the federal budget deficit, as well as a reduction in U.S. government spending and taxes. Asked whether the tea party members are good or bad for the country, Obama told the AP he was more concerned about their tactics than about their positions.

"It's this idea that if they don't get 100% of their way, they'll shut down the government or they'll threaten economic chaos," he said. "That has to stop."

Obamacare glitches

The government shutdown occurred when Obama refused to give in to Republican demands that he delay or change the Affordable Care Act, the signature achievement of his first term that began enrolling patients on October 1.

Obama said he did not know how many people had signed up for the plan, also known as Obamacare. He acknowledged that computer glitches have snarled the process for some, but urged them not to give up.

"My message to them would be, each day the wait times are reduced," he said.

But the program is not going to be affected by the budget negotiations, he said. "The obsession with the Affordable Care Act, with Obamacare, has to stop," he added. "That is not something that should be a price for keeping the government open."

Obama contrasted his own low-profile behavior during his single term in the Senate with that of some current first-term senators, who include Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky -- all of whom have been outspoken in their opposition to Obamacare.

"I didn't go around courting the media, and I certainly didn't go around trying to shut down the government," he said. "And so I recognize that in today's media age, being controversial, taking controversial positions, rallying the most extreme parts of your base -- whether it's left or right -- is a lot of times the fastest way to get attention or raise money, but it's not good for government. It's not good for the people we're supposed to be serving."

Thoughts on Iran

The AP interview also touched on the question of Iran's nuclear program and the overtures made last month by President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York.

"Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions," Rouhani told the world body.

Obama said the United States should test such overtures.

"I think Rouhani has staked his position on the idea that he can improve relations with the rest of the world," Obama said. "And so far, he's been saying a lot of the right things. And the question now is, can he follow through?"

Obama said the U.S. view is that Iran is at least a year away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon, double the six months cited this week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has expressed deep distrust of Tehran's intentions -- calling Houssani "a wolf in sheep's clothing."

"What I've said to Prime Minister Netanyahu is that the entire point of us setting up sanctions and putting pressure on the Iranian economy was to bring them to the table in a serious way to see if we can resolve this issue diplomatically," Obama said. "And we've got to test that. We're not going to take a bad deal. We are going to make sure that we verify any agreement that we might strike."

One more thing ...

Though much of the interview focused on the sport of politics, it ended on the politics of sport. Asked about the Washington Redskins, a name some people consider to be insulting to Native Americans, the nation's first black president said he would be open to changing the name if he owned the team.

"I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things," he said.

But Obama added that there was little chance he would wind up owning a football team. If he were to own any professional sports team after leaving the presidency, Obama said, it would more likely be a basketball team.

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