WASHINGTON — Congress missed its deadline early Tuesday to resolve partisan disputes over Obamacare and struggled into the early morning hours for a way out of a morass that forced the first government shutdown since 1996.
House Republicans were set to vote after midnight on a proposal calling for a small group of House and Senate negotiators to tackle the problem. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Senate Democrats would not agree to negotiate “with a gun to our head.”
Lawmakers still had some leeway early Tuesday to clear a temporary spending bill before most federal employees arrived for work on the first day of the government's new fiscal year. But the approach taken late Monday by House Republicans — and Reid's response to it — didn't bode well for a quick solution.
House Republicans have insisted through legislation in the past 10 days on changes to the health care law as a condition for keeping the government open. Senate Democrats refuse to address Obamacare in the must-pass spending bill.
Democrats blamed the tea party contingent of Republicans for the impasse, while Republicans said they had voted to keep the government open and Democrats refused so they could protect the Affordable Care Act.
Most government agencies officially ran out of money at midnight in Washington, and the White House budget office ordered them to “execute plans for an orderly shutdown.”
However, many important payments that people rely on won't be interrupted, and law enforcement and national security tasks will continue.
Back and forth
The Senate rejected a House GOP proposal early Monday afternoon that would have delayed parts of the health care law and eliminated a tax on medical devices.
House Republicans immediately responded with a proposal to delay the mandate for individuals to buy health insurance and require the president, vice president, lawmakers and their workers to purchase health insurance on exchanges without employer subsidies.
“I've never been for shutting down the government, and I'm still not,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore.
“But I think people judge that you're fighting for something principled in saying that Congress shouldn't have a special benefit and that other Americans shouldn't be required to do something that they don't want to do when big businesses are being let off. I think that's a pretty defensible position.”
Senate Democrats quickly rejected that proposal, as well. Reid said House Republicans had “lost their minds.”
“They keep doing the same thing over and over again,” he said.“Remember, they don't believe in government. So what's a good way to really hurt government? Shut it down.”
Senate Democratic leaders argued that Americans would benefit from the insurance policies being made available Tuesday through new marketplaces called exchanges. And they said that lawmakers and their staffs weren't getting a special deal by having their employers — the federal government — help pay for their health insurance.
The one thing the two houses have agreed on in the past two weeks is that active duty military personnel should be paid if the government shuts down. Both houses approved legislation in the past few days to ensure service members won't miss a paycheck.
Obama calls leaders
President Barack Obama, referring to the tea party Republicans who launched the drive to defund the health care law through the must-pass spending bill, said Monday that “one faction of one party, in one house of Congress, in one branch of government doesn't get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election.”
Obama telephoned the Republican and Democratic leaders in both houses Monday afternoon, the first contact he's made with the Republican leaders in many days.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seeming to mock the president, quoted Obama as saying that he wasn't going to negotiate. Boehner, whose ability to control House Republicans has been questioned, said the debate wasn't about him. Rather, he said, it was about fairness for Americans being forced to buy insurance they didn't want and couldn't afford.
Worse than last time
The last government shutdowns were in 1995 and 1996 when then-President Bill Clinton fought with the Republican Congress over balancing the budget. One shutdown in that period lasted 21 days and went through the Christmas holidays.
Though somewhat disruptive, the effects of those shutdowns would pale in comparison to the one looming now. Back then, Congress had passed spending bills for some agencies and departments, so a large part of the government was immune to a funding lapse.
This year, Congress has not sent a single spending bill to the president's desk so a shutdown would affect a broad swath of programs.
Though critical programs such as Social Security, Medicare and veterans care would continue, many other services would be suspended, and hundreds of thousands of federal employees would face furloughs or working without a guarantee of pay.
“Keeping the people's government open is not a concession to me,” Obama said Monday. “Keeping vital services running and hundreds of thousands of Americans on the job is not something you ‘give' to the other side. It's our basic responsibility.
“You don't get to extract a ransom for doing your job.”