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Clock runs out in Washington

The federal government shuts down as Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate stand firm in the Obamacare funding battle

The Ohio Clock just outside the Senate chamber strikes midnight Monday night, the deadline for Congress to reach an agreement to fund the government. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Clock runs out in Washington

WASHINGTON—The hardball strategy on Capitol Hill over funding the government and the future of Obamacare has brought the federal government to its first shutdown in 17 years. Lawmakers ping-ponged legislation back and forth at a furious pace all day Monday. But it was all for naught: Congress could not agree on how to fund the government for just six more weeks.

“This is an unnecessary blow to America,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said just moments after midnight.

“Nothing good happens after midnight, including government shutdowns," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “Not Congress’ finest hour.”

The hours leading up to a government shutdown proved Congress could pass bills fast when it has to: The House approved a series of measures to keep the government open with the Senate quickly rejecting them because they included delays to healthcare law.

Both sides held firm with House Republicans offering some concessions by tweaking their proposed changes to Obamacare. But Reid refused to negotiate on any funding bills that altered what President Barack Obama considers his signature accomplishment.

With hours before the midnight deadline the Republican-led House approved a bill to fund the government and delay for one year the individual mandate to buy insurance under Obamacare. As this debate progressed over the last week, the House sent funding bills to the Senate that repealed, defunded, or delayed elements of the healthcare law set to start on Tuesday. Before the vote to delay the mandate, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, argued that the Obama administration has already given Obamacare delays to other groups such as big business.

“I would say to the president this is not about me,” Boehner said. “This is not about Republicans here in Congress. It’s about fairness for the American people.”

But the Senate wasted no time rejecting the last spending proposal, voting along party lines to remove the delay to Obamacare’s individual mandate less than 30 minutes after the House sent the bill across the Capitol. Reid said on the Senate floor that Republicans “have lost their minds.” That kicked the Senate’s “clean” spending bill—with no Obamacare provisions—back to the House as the clock ticked toward midnight.

“We are not going to do anything other than wait for them to pass our [bill], because otherwise, government’s going to shut down,” Reid said Monday afternoon, repeating comments he has said for the past week.

Late Monday, with less than 30 minutes until midnight, the House Republicans decided to call for a conference committee between House and Senate lawmakers to draft a compromise budget deal. Reid then took to the Senate floor pledging to not seat senators for any negotiations as long as Obamacare was still on the table.

“We will not go to conference with a gun to our heads,” Reid said. When asked if Democrats would accept a small change to Obamacare, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., simply said, “No.”

With both sides entrenched, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget notified federal agencies to “now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations.”

Both parties seemed mostly united: House Republicans easily turned back a threatened revolt Monday afternoon from a handful of moderate Republicans. In the Senate, Democrats seeking reelection in red-leaning states where Obamacare is unpopular have resisted calls by Republicans to join their fight against the healthcare law.

House Republicans have accused Reid and Obama of refusing to come to the negotiating table. Republicans believe that Democrats, who displayed orchestrated outrage all day Monday, are confident they will win the political blame game over the shutdown. Running out the clock, Democrats kept the Senate shuttered on Sunday while the House went into session on Saturday. In recent days, the president has spoken more with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani than he has with congressional Republicans. Obama did have a 10-minute conversation with Boehner over the phone late Monday afternoon. It was their first discussion since two Fridays ago.

“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 re-fight the results of an election,” Obama said during an afternoon appearance at the White House. The president later told National Public Radio, “I shouldn’t have to offer anything,” when it came to negotiations.

But many Republicans are unwilling to back down, passionately believing a stand must be made because they fear Obamacare will harm the nation’s economy and workforce in transformational ways. Meanwhile, Reid and Democrats are relishing the opportunity to pin a government shutdown on Republicans.

“A bad day for government is a good day for the anarchists among us,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “Those who believe in no—I repeat, no—government. That is their belief.”

Obama argued “a shutdown will have a very real impact on real people right away.” But many services deemed essential will not be affected. Those include payments such as Social Security and veterans’ benefits. In the 1995 shutdown about 80 percent of Social Security Administration employees stayed on the job. Inspectors will continue to test food and drugs, agents will continue to patrol the border, and air traffic controllers will continue to monitor the nation’s airports. The military will remain active and the Postal Service will deliver mail.

According to research by The Heritage Foundation, only about 800,000 of a total of nearly 4.5 million federal employees were affected by the November 1995 shutdown while just 300,000 were furloughed in the second shutdown from December 1995 to January 1996. Today, federal employees represent about 2 percent of the nation’s non-agricultural workforce. About 825,000 of those federal workers face being furloughed with the shutdown. Lawmakers will continue to get paid during the shutdown. Sen. Ted Cruz, the freshman Republican from Texas who spearheaded the drive to tie Obamacare defunding efforts to the government’s budget, has said he will donate his salary to charity for each day the government is shuttered.

With the shutdown, the Republicans will argue that Democrats brought it on by refusing to budge on Obamacare while Democrats will blame Republicans by claiming Obamacare is the law of the land and can’t be changed. In the midst of all these disagreements, Congress did agree to one thing on Monday: Both the House and Senate approved a measure to ensure that military paychecks are not interrupted by a shutdown. Obama even signed into law late Monday this bill exempting the effects of a shutdown on the military.

But with the government shutdown showdown, the bipartisan game of hardball, and the name calling, it is not surprising that just 10 percent of Americans in a new CNN poll say they approve of the job Congress is doing. That’s a record low.

“Obamacare’s not popular,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told reporters about the shutdown late Monday night. “But we’ve managed to find the one thing less popular than Obamacare.”

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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