President Obama has canceled his week-long trip to Asia because of the government shutdown, opting not to leave the country on what was originally scheduled as an expensive four-nation tour while thousands of government workers are furloughed.
The White House was under pressure – even from members of his own party -- to scrap an overseas trip while significant sections of the the government are shutdown because of a budget impasse between Republicans and Democrats.
After the government shutdown when both parties could not reach agreement to keep the government funded after Oct. 1, the president curtailed the Asia to th first two planned stops in Indonesia and Brunei. Obama was originally scheduled also to visit the Philippines and Mali to promote U.S. economic ties to the region.
Late Thursday night the White House announced it had scrapped the trip entirely and blamed House Republicans for preventing Obama from being able to travel abroad to promote U.S. economic interests in the region.
“Due to the government shut-down, President Obama’s travel to Indonesia and Brunei has been cancelled,” the White House said in a statement late Thursday night. “The President made this decision based on the difficulty in moving forward with foreign travel in the face of a shutdown, and his determination to continue pressing his case that Republicans should immediately allow a vote to reopen the government.”
The White House said Secretary of State John Kerry would lead delegations to both countries in Obama's stead.
The decision came late Thursday evening on day three of the government shutdown after lawmakers were unable to pass a funding bill before the Oct. 1 fiscal deadline. Washington also faces an Oct. 17 deadline to raise the nation's borrowing limit or risk default.
If Obama left the country in the middle of the shutdown, he risked a barrage of criticism from Republicans that he was opting to take an expensive overseas tour that would leave him physically unable to negotiate or even discuss in person the prospect of a potential compromise that would re-open the government and resolve the fiscal impasse in Washington.
In its statement late Thursday night, the White House placed the blame for Obama's canceled Asian trip squarely on House Republicans who want to defund or delay Obamacare, the president's signature achievement, or seek other spending concessions in order to pass a bill that would re-open the government.
“The cancellation of this trip is another consequence of the House Republicans forcing a shutdown of the government,” the White House said. “This completely avoidable shutdown is setting back our ability to create jobs through promotion of U.S. exports and advance U.S. leadership and interests in the largest emerging region in the world.”
“The President looks forward to continuing his work with our allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific and to returning to the region at a later date,” the White House added.
House Republicans were already readying their talking points if Obama opted to depart Saturday night, as planned, for Indonesia.
“I think he's non-essential personnel myself because if he won't negotiate, then what do we need him for?” House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told the Washington Examiner Wednesday.
“If the president leaves the country 14 days before the debt limit and during a government shutdown in which only essential personnel and essential activities are authorized because in fact he is using money not legally appropriated, then I would say the president has once again, by executive fiat, exceeded his authority.” Issa added.
At least one influential Democratic Congressman also said the optics of an overseas trip at this time isn't worth the criticism. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, suggested Wednesday that Obama should drop plans to travel overseas as long as the government remains closed.
“I think he should reevaluate the situation if the government is still closed,” said Ruppersberger. “Unless there is some strong, compelling reason, he needs to reevaluate what is in the best interest of the country and the message he is sending.”
The government shut down on Monday after House Republicans sought to defund or delay Obamacare in their continuing resolutions, measures which were rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate and opposed by the president. With Congress deadlocked, GOP leaders are demanding that Obama negotiate with them and work to resolve the impasse.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the White House is still weighing whether Obama should scuttle the entire trip “steadily.”
Earlier this week, Carney said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, could decide at any moment to end the fiscal fight and move to pass a clean spending bill to reopen government.
“I'm not going to spin ahead to Saturday, and we'll obviously evaluate this as each day goes by,” Carney told reporters earlier in the week. “You know, if the Speaker were to do what I just talked about, we could – the government would be up and running by dinnertime.”
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who is pushing to block Obamacare, said the issue is the president’s refusal to fully engage with Republicans.
“The main problem I have with the president right now is that he is not negotiating,” he said. “If he wants to negotiate long distance from Asia, all we're wanting to do is find some common ground and it's about time we all start negotiating.”
White House officials said it would be a missed opportunity if domestic politics forced Obama to cancel the entire trip, which includes a pair of regional economic and security summits.
After a decade of U.S. foreign policy focused mainly on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has also tried to make engagement with Asia a top priority, touting the region's emerging markets and need to counter the influence of China.
The president's absence would also give Republicans the chance to resurrect their criticism of Obama for working with Russian President Vladimir Putin on disarming Syria's chemical arsenal even as he says he will not negotiate with the GOP on the shutdown.
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said leaving on an overseas trip while the government is shuttered “shows a lack of priorities.”
“I'm glad he agreed to meet with the Speaker of the house and other leadership of Congress this evening, but the fact of the matter is while he has said he is not willing to negotiate with any of us he's been perfectly willing to negotiate with President Putin over Syria.”
Obama is already the second-most traveled president in history, according to the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. He is currently trailing only former President George H.W. Bush in time spent overseas.
The cost of the flights alone will cost millions at a time when some parts of the government will be temporarily out of funds. The cost per hour of operating Air Force One is $179,750, but that's only a tiny fraction of the total for any presidential trip, which includes back-up aircraft, aerial tankers, motor transport, security and diplomatic personnel, accommodations and advance teams.
In 2013, Obama has made five international trips so far — to the Middle East, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Africa and St. Petersburg, Russia.