WASHINGTON — For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government staggered into a partial shutdown Monday at midnight after congressional Republicans stubbornly demanded changes in the nation’s health care law as the price for essential federal funding and President Barack Obama and Democrats adamantly refused.
As Congress gridlocked, Obama said a “shutdown will have a very real economic impact on real people, right away,” with hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed and veterans’ centers, national parks, most of the space agency and other government operations shuttered.
He laid the blame at the feet of House Republicans, whom he accused of seeking to tie government funding to ideological demands, “all to save face after making some impossible promises to the extreme right wing of their party.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, responded a short while later on the House floor. “The American people don’t want a shutdown and neither do I,” he said. Yet, he added, the new health care law “is having a devastating impact. ... Something has to be done.”
The stock market dropped on fears that political deadlock between the White House and a tea party-heavy Republican Party would prevail, though analysts suggested significant damage to the national economy was unlikely unless a shutdown lasted more than a few days.
A few minutes before midnight, Budget Director Sylvia Burwell issued a directive to federal agencies to “execute plans for an orderly shutdown.”
Military, air traffic controllers
While an estimated 800,000 federal workers faced furloughs, some critical parts of the government — from the military to air traffic controllers — would remain open.
Any interruption in federal funding would send divided government into territory unexplored in nearly two decades. Then, Republicans suffered grievous political damage and President Bill Clinton benefited from twin shutdowns. Now, some Republicans said they feared a similar outcome.
If nothing else, some Republicans also conceded it was impossible to use funding legislation to squeeze concessions from the White House on health care. “We can’t win,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
“We’re on the brink,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Md., said shortly after midday as the two houses maneuvered for political advantage and the Obama administration’s budget office prepared for a partial shutdown, the first since winter 1995-1996.
Long day, night at capitol
On a long day and night in the Capitol, the Senate torpedoed one GOP attempt to tie government financing to changes in “Obamacare.” House Republicans countered with a second despite unmistakable signs their unity was fraying — and Senate Democrats promptly rejected it, as well.
Defiant still, House Republicans decided to re-pass their earlier measure and simultaneously request negotiations with the Senate on a compromise. Some aides conceded the move was largely designed to make sure that the formal paperwork was on the Senate’s doorstep as the day ended.
Whatever its intent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., rejected it. “That closes government. They want to close government,” he said of House Republicans.
As lawmakers squabbled, Obama spoke bluntly about House Republicans. “You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job, for doing what you’re supposed to be doing anyway, or just because there’s a law there that you don’t like,” he said.
Speaking of the health care law that undergoes a major expansion today, he said emphatically, “That funding is already in place. You can’t shut it down.”