Federal shutdown underway

Just hours before deadline, Senate Democrats strip health care provisions from a measure passed by House; Obama says he's open to 11th-hour talks

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WASHINGTON -- The federal government teetered Monday night on the brink of its first shutdown in nearly two decades after last-minute moves by the House and Senate failed to break a budget standoff over President Barack Obama's health care law, raising the prospect that federal agencies would run out of money as of today.

House Republican leaders won approval, by a vote of 228-201, of a new plan to tie further government spending to a one-year delay in a requirement that individuals buy health insurance. The House proposal would deny federal subsidies to members of Congress, Capitol Hill staff, executive branch political appointees, White House staff and the president and vice president, who would be forced to buy their health coverage on the Affordable Care Act's new insurance exchanges.

But 57 minutes later, and with almost no debate, the Senate killed the House health care provisions and sent the stopgap spending bill right back, free of policy prescriptions. Earlier in the day, the Senate had taken less than 25 minutes to convene and dispose of a weekend budget proposal by the House Republicans.

"They've lost their minds," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said before disposing of the House bill. "They keep trying to do the same thing over and over again."

That left the next move up to Mr. Boehner and his House Republican rank and file, with just two hours remaining before the shutdown deadline of midnight EDT. They decided to re-pass their earlier measure and simultaneously request negotiations with the Senate on a compromise, a move that some GOP aides said was largely designed to make sure that the formal paperwork was on the Senate's doorstep at the moment of a shutdown.

Whatever its intent, Mr. Reid rejected it. "That closes government. They want to close government," he said.

The federal government was then left essentially to run out of money at midnight, the end of the fiscal year, as House Republicans scrambled for a response.

"One faction in one branch of government doesn't get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election," Mr. Obama said in the White House briefing room as the clock ticked to midnight. "You don't get to extract a ransom for doing your job."

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., stood with his party to support efforts to keep the government running while delaying implementation of the health care overhaul. He said he was disappointed by the outcome but would keep working with both parties and chambers of Congress to end the standoff.

Both sides did come together on one measure Monday: legislation that will mitigate the shutdown's impacts on military families and defense contractors, by ensuring that they continue to be paid on time throughout it. The measure, previously passed by the House, easily cleared the Senate and was signed by the president.

Mr. Toomey has been a vocal proponent of the measure and said Monday that passage is "a great relief to our troops and the civilians who support them, that they and their families will not suffer if Congress and the White House fail to come to an agreement on how to keep our government running." Meanwhile, he blamed the shutdown on Senate Democratic leaders.

Senate Democrats, including Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, pointed their fingers to the other side of the Capitol, where Republicans control legislation. Mr. Casey said Republicans are wrongheaded to use a government shutdown as leverage in their fight to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

Pennsylvania Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, passed the blame right back. "The House worked the weekend and offered two reasonable compromises. Instead of working with the House on a solution, the Senate took the weekend off. President Obama and the Senate should get in the game to come to a resolution and prevent a shutdown," he said late Monday.

The legislative and rhetorical volleys flying between the chambers of Congress and the White House passed for action. Mr. Obama called House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, but they spoke for less than 10 minutes, without any sign of progress.

"I talked to the president tonight," the speaker said on the House floor. He summed up Mr. Obama's remarks as: "I'm not going to negotiate. I'm not going to negotiate."

In truth, all sides understood that they had no way -- and no real intention -- of bridging the chasm separating the parties before today, when 800,000 federal workers were to be furloughed and more than a million others would be asked to go to work without pay.

The House's most ardent conservatives were resigned to seeing through their war on the health care law to its inevitable conclusion, a shutdown that could test voters' patience with Republican brinkmanship.

But cracks in the Republican caucus were opening into fissures of frustration.

"You have this group that keeps saying somehow if you're not with them, you're for Obamacare," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. "If you're not with exactly their plan, exactly what they want to do, then you're somehow for Obamacare, and it's just getting a little old." He added, "It's moronic to shut down the government over this."

It was far from certain that Republicans could remain unified on their insistence on health care concessions if a shutdown lasted for some time. Asked whether Republicans could hold together through the end of the week, Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey, one of the more conservative members, answered: "I don't know. I don't know."

Earlier Monday, the Senate voted 54-46 along party lines to kill the previous House plan immediately after ending a weekend break. Senators then sent the House a bill to finance the government through Nov. 15 without policy prescriptions. But House leaders would have none of it, again demanding a significant hit to the health law as a price for keeping the government open.

"The president provided a one-year delay of the employer mandate," Mr. Boehner said. "He's provided for exceptions for unions and others. There's even an exception for members of Congress. We believe that everyone should be treated fairly."

Mr. Reid laid into the speaker and put the blame for a shutdown solely on his shoulders. "Our negotiation is over with," he said. "You know, with a bully, you cannot let them slap you around because they slap you around today, they slap you five or six times tomorrow," said Mr. Reid, a former boxer. "We are not going to be bullied."

In addition to criticizing Mr. Boehner, Mr. Reid excoriated what he called the "banana Republican mind-set" of the House. He called upon the speaker to put the Senate bill up for a vote, which would almost certainly pass in the House because of overwhelming Democratic support and backing from moderate Republicans.

In their latest move, House Republicans attached language to a government funding bill that would delay the mandate that individuals obtain health insurance and would force members of Congress, their staffs and White House staff members to buy their health insurance on the new exchanges without any government subsidies.

Conservative activists have portrayed the language as ensuring that Congress and the White House would be held to the same strictures that apply to ordinary Americans under the health care law. In fact, the language would put poorly paid junior staff members at a disadvantage.

Most people buying coverage on the exchanges will receive subsidies through generous tax credits. Most Americans will still get their insurance from their employers, who will continue to receive a tax deduction for the cost of that care.

Under the House language, lawmakers and their staffs, executive branch political appointees, the White House staff and the president and vice president would have to pay the entire cost of health insurance out of pocket.

Unlike Saturday, when House Republicans emerged excited and unified by their proposal, this time there were significant qualms.

Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., said junior staff members were "being used as a sacrifice" for a political gambit, driven by Senate Republican hard-liners such as Texas' Ted Cruz, that will go nowhere. "They locked themselves into this situation, the dead end that Ted Cruz created," Mr. King said.

The budget confrontation -- which threatened to close federal offices and facilities, idling thousands of workers across the nation -- stemmed from an unusual push by Republicans to undo a law that has been on the books for three years, through a presidential election, and that the Supreme Court largely upheld in 2012. A major part of the law is set to take effect today: the opening of insurance exchanges, where people without insurance will be able to obtain coverage.

Republicans argue that the administration has itself delayed elements of the law. They say it should be postponed for at least a year to eliminate what they see as bureaucratic problems and harmful consequences for businesses and individuals.

Democrats say Republicans are being driven by the most extreme elements of their party to use the federal budget to extract concessions on health care that they could not win through the traditional legislative process. "The scary thing about the period we're in right now is there is no clear end," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

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Post-Gazette Washington Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello and Associated Press contributed. First Published October 1, 2013 4:00 AM


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