Early Wednesday, the White House announced that Obama would shorten the trip set to begin this weekend and skip visits to Malaysia and the Philippines, instead sending Secretary of State John Kerry in his stead. The president still plans to travel to Indonesia and Brunei, and is slated to leave Saturday night.
The decision to shorten Obama's travel plans comes as Washington is in day two of a federal shutdown, after lawmakers were unable to pass a funding bill before an Oct. 1 deadline. Washington also faces an Oct. 17 deadline to raise the nation’s borrowing limit or risk default.
Republicans have criticized the prospect of the president traveling to Asia on an expensive overseas tour while many federal employees are furloughed and key public services suspended because of the shutdown.
“I think he's non-essential personnel myself because if he won't negotiate, then what do we need him for?” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
“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 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 Wednesday that the White House is still weighing whether Obama should scuttle the entire trip, noting that the situation is fluid.
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. “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.”
Obama is meeting with both party’s congressional leaders at the White House early Wednesday evening, but it is unclear whether they will make progress on a deal.
White House officials say 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.”