WASHINGTON — National parks and monuments closed and hundreds of thousands of federal employees began an unpaid furlough Tuesday, with no end in site of the first government shutdown in 17 years.
President Barack Obama accused Republicans in the House of Representatives of forcing the partial government shutdown because of their “ideological crusade” to stop the new Affordable Care Act from taking full effect as scheduled Tuesday. Republicans countered that they have been trying to keep the government open but that the Democrats refuse to negotiate at all over any change to the health care law.
Obama said he was willing to negotiate on a range of issues, but not under threat of repeal of a law enacted in 2010, upheld by the Supreme Court, and debated in a 2012 election that he won over a Republican who wanted to repeal the law.
He warned that the shutdown, which has furloughed an estimated 800,000 federal workers, could hurt a still fragile economy. “That’s not how adults operate,” he said. “Certainly that’s not how our government should operate. . . . We’re better than this. Certainly the American people are a lot better than this.”
Looking to ease the pain of the shutdown – or the political fallout – the Republican House offered its newest proposal, this one a series of three votes to restore spending for three popular areas: the Department of Veterans Affairs, the District of Columbia with its landmark monuments, and the National Park Service.
“That’s a reasonable, productive way to move forward,” Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said during an outdoor news conference with House and Senate Republicans. But all three bills failed late Tuesday to secure the required two-thirds votes and died in the House.
Senate Democrats insisted on an all-or-nothing approach to reopening the government.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., dismissed the House proposals as “just another wacky idea from the tea party-driven Republicans” and an effort to “cherry pick some of the few parts of government that they like.”
The White House said it would veto any partial restoration of government funding.
“The president and the Senate have been clear that they won’t accept this kind of game-playing, and if these bills were to come to the president’s desk he would veto them,” White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said a “piecemeal approach to funding the government is not a serious approach.”
At the Capitol, congressional Democrats and Republicans worked to blame each other for the standoff. The Democratic National Committee created a website and the hashtag #GOPShutdown; House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, penned an editorial in USA Today arguing that Obama has refused to negotiate.
The Senate returned to business at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and promptly killed the House Republicans’ previous proposal – a midnight call for a conference committee of representatives and senators to negotiate their way out of the shutdown. The chamber rejected the idea on a party-line 54-46 vote, putting the ball back in the House’s court.
Boehner accused Senate Democrats of prolonging the shutdown, saying they’d “slammed the door on reopening the federal government by refusing to talk.”
He added, “We hope that Senate Democrats – and President Obama – change course and start working with us on behalf of the American people.”
House Republican conferees appointed to the nonexistent conference committee held a news event with a conference table and empty chairs to symbolize the absence of Senate Democrats.
“Clearly the Senate has demonstrated that it is not willing to engage in the legislative process, and that is why I think the House and the speaker took the position of appointing conferees, so that we can actually get down to business and talk through our differences,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Even tea party conservatives, who have championed the House’s efforts to repeal Obama’s health care law, expressed unease with the idea of a conference committee.
“Part of the reason we’re against Obamacare in the first place was there were a lot of closed-door meetings instead of business being conducted in the light of day,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, who said she fears that a House-Senate conference wouldn’t be transparent. “I’ve heard that conference meetings would be open to the public. But I’ve heard that prior to having the meetings there are a lot of back-door deals.”
The shutdown failed to achieve the Republican aim of delaying the start of Obama’s health care law, though various online marketplace exchanges that went live Tuesday reported glitches. Republicans pointed to the array of problems to bolster their case that the health care law should be stopped.
But Obama, who appeared in the Rose Garden with Americans he says have already benefited from the health care law, attributed some of the problems to demand.
He said more than 1 million people visited the online site before 7 a.m. – five times more users than ever have been on Medicare.gov at one time – and caused it to be sluggish.
“Like every new law, every new product rollout, there are going to be some glitches in the signup process along the way that we will fix,” Obama said, noting Apple’s new iPhone had glitches but that no one suggested Apple stop selling them.
And he promised, “We’re going to speed this up to handle demand that exceeds anything we expected.”
There appeared to be few ongoing negotiations to end the dispute. Obama was briefed by senior staff Tuesday morning about the shutdown, but he had not spoken to congressional leaders since Monday evening before the closure. Carney said that Obama expects to speak to them in the coming days.
And, Carney said, Obama will continue to press Congress to reopen the government, meeting with business leaders on Wednesday and visiting a small local construction company on Thursday.
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