WASHINGTON – First slowed, then stalled by political gridlock, the vast machinery of government clanged into partial shutdown mode on Tuesday and President Barack Obama warned the longer it goes, “the more families will be hurt.”
Republicans said it was his fault, not theirs, and embarked on a strategy – opposed by Democrats – of voting on bills to reopen individual agencies or programs.
Ominously, there were suggestions from leaders in both parties that the shutdown, heading for its second day, could last for weeks and grow to encompass a possible default by the Treasury if Congress fails to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. The two issues are “now all together,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Speaking at the White House, the president accused Republicans of causing the first partial closure in 17 years as part of a nonstop “ideological crusade” to wipe out his signature health care law.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, gave as good as he got. “The president isn’t telling the whole story,” he said in an opinion article posted on the USA Today website. “The fact is that Washington Democrats have slammed the door on reopening the government by refusing to engage in bipartisan talks.”
Both houses of Congress met in a Capitol closed to regular public tours, part of the impact of a partial shutdown that sent ripples of disruption outward – from museums and memorials in Washington to Yellowstone and other national parks and to tax auditors and federal offices serving Americans coast to coast.
Officials said roughly 800,000 federal employees would be affected by the shutdown after a half-day on the job Tuesday to fill out time cards, put new messages on their voicemails and complete similar chores.
Late Tuesday, House Republicans sought swift passage of legislation aimed at reopening small slices of the federal establishment. The bills covered the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Park Service and a portion of the Washington, D.C., government funded with local tax revenue.
Democrats generally opposed all three, saying Republicans shouldn’t be permitted to choose which agencies remain open and which stay shut. As a result, all fell well short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.
The White House also issued veto threats against the bills.
Ironically, a major expansion of the health care law – the very event Republicans had hoped to prevent – was unaffected as consumers flocked for the first time Tuesday to websites to shop for coverage sold by private companies.
In Washington, some Republicans conceded privately they might bear the brunt of public anger over the shutdown and seemed resigned to an eventual surrender in their latest bruising struggle with Obama.
Democrats have “all the leverage and we’ve got none,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, of Georgia.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said sardonically his party was following a “Ted Cruz-lemmings strategy” – a reference to the senator who is a prime proponent of action against the health care overhaul – and Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia said it was time to pass legislation reopening the government without any health care impediments. “The shutdown is hurting my district, including the military and the hard-working men and women who have been furloughed due to the defense sequester,” he said.
But that was far from the majority view among House Republicans, where tea party-aligned lawmakers prevailed more than a week ago on a reluctant leadership to link federal funding legislation to “Obamacare.” In fact, some conservatives fretted the GOP had already given in too much.
Gone is the Republican demand for a full defunding of the health care law as the price for essential federal funding. Gone, too, are the demands for a one-year delay in the law, a permanent repeal of a medical device tax and a provision making it harder for women to obtain contraceptive coverage.
In place of those items, Republicans now seek a one-year delay in the requirement for individuals to purchase insurance, and they want a separate provision that would dramatically raise the cost of health care for the president, vice president, members of Congress and thousands of aides.
In addition to “closed” signs and barricades springing up at the Lincoln Memorial and other tourist attractions, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency were virtually shuttered, and Obama said veterans centers would be shut down.
Government workers classified as essential, such as air traffic controllers, Border Patrol agents and most food inspectors, remained on the job.
So, too, members of the military, whose pay was exempted from the shutdown in separate legislation Obama signed late Monday. Employees whose work is financed through fees, including those who issue passports and visas, also continued to work. The self-funded Postal Service remained in operation, and officials said the government will continue to pay Social Security benefits and Medicare and Medicaid fees to doctors on time.