Washington: The standoff that partially shut down the US government today deepened as the Democratic-led Senate rejected the latest House Republican effort to negotiate a solution to a dispute over President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
In a 54-46 party-line vote, the Senate turned aside a House request to name negotiators to a conference to resolve differences. The shutdown began when Congress missed a midnight deadline Monday to pass temporary funding bill, stalled by conservative efforts to push through a delay in the health care law.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would not negotiate as long as Republicans were holding up a straightforward spending bill to keep the government operating.
About 800,000 federal workers are being forced off the job in the first government shutdown in 17 years, suspending most nonessential federal programs and services.
It wasn’t clear how long the standoff would last, but there were no signs of compromise. The Senate vote marked the fourth time during this fight that it has rejected House Republican efforts.
Obama, who has vowed not to allow Republicans to cripple his signature health care law, readied a midday statement to the nation.
Obama communications director Jennifer Palmieri told MSNBC that the White House was open to changes in the health care law in future negotiations, but not as part of passing a budget bill. She compared that to negotiating with “a gun pointed to your head.”
Stock markets around the world reacted resiliently, with analysts saying significant damage to the US economy was unlikely unless the shutdown lasted more than a few days. US stocks edged higher in early trading Tuesday, while European stocks mostly recovered after falling the day before the shutdown deadline. Asian stocks were mixed.
The stalemate pits Democrats against a core of conservative small-government activists who have mounted a campaign to seize the must-do budget measure in an effort to dismantle the 2010 health care reform, which is intended to provide coverage for the millions of Americans now uninsured.
In the House, conservative Rep. Marsha Blackburn predicted the standoff would drag on if Obama and Senate Democrats refused to bargain.
“You may see a partial shutdown for several days,” Blackburn told Fox News. “People are going to realise they can live with a lot less government.”
Republicans passionately oppose the plan they have dubbed “Obamacare” as wasteful and restricting freedom by requiring most Americans to have health insurance.
A key part of the health law was taking effect Tuesday, unaffected by the shutdown. Enrollment opened for millions of people shopping for medical insurance.
Also exempt from the shutdown were people classified as essential government employees, including air traffic controllers, Border Patrol agents and most food inspectors.
National parks, museums in Washington and agencies like NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency nearly closed. The National Zoo in Washington closed to visitors and turned off the popular panda cam that had showed off a weeks-old cub.
Pentagon and administration lawyers were looking for ways to expand the number of Defense Department civilians who are exempt from furloughs, amid worries that that the shutdown is damaging US credibility among its international allies, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday.
Until now, such temporary spending bills have been routinely passed with bipartisan support, ever since a pair of unpopular shutdowns in the winter of 1995-1996 severely damaged Republican election prospects and revived then-President Bill Clinton’s political standing.
The Republican leader of the House, Speaker John Boehner, said he didn’t want a government shutdown, but he insisted that the health care law “is having a devastating impact. … Something has to be done.”
Republican leaders have voiced reservations about the effort and many lawmakers predicted it wouldn’t work, fearing the public will blame their party for the shutdown. But individual Republican House members may face a greater risk by embracing a compromise. Many represent heavily partisan congressional districts, and voters in Republican primaries have ousted lawmakers they see as too moderate.
It appeared for now that the Democrats had the upper hand.
“We can’t win,” said Republican Sen. John McCain, adding that “sooner or later” the House would have to agree to Democrats’ demands for a simple, straightforward funding bill reopening the government.
Federal workers were told to report to their jobs for a half-day but to perform only shutdown tasks like changing email greetings.
The White House was operating with a skeletal staff, including household workers taking care of the first family’s residence and presidential aides working in the West Wing.
The State Department will continue processing foreign applications for visas. Embassies and consulates overseas will continue to provide services to American citizens.
The underlying spending bill would fund the government through November 15 if the Senate gets its way or until December 15 if the House does.
Looming ahead is a potentially more dangerous fight: Republicans are likely to take up the health care fight again when Congress must pass a measure to increase the nation’s borrowing cap. The US risks a market-rattling, first-ever default on its obligations if Congress fails to raise that limit.