Washington - Much of the vast machinery of the US government
ground to a halt on Tuesday as Democrats and Republicans blamed each other for
a partial shutdown that closed federal agencies, national parks and research
facilities across the nation.
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.
Speaking at the White House, President Barack Obama accused
Republicans of causing the first partial closure in 17 years as part of a
non-stop "ideological crusade" to wipe out his signature healthcare
'Not the whole story'
House Speaker John Boehner disagreed: "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
About 800 000 employees - about a third of the federal
workforce - are being forced off the job in the first government shutdown in 17
years, suspending most nonessential federal programmes and services. People
classified as essential employees - such as air traffic controllers, Border
Patrol agents and most food inspectors - will continue to work.
Among the furloughed workers were some at the National
Institute of Health's famed hospital of last resort, where officials said no
new patients would be admitted for the duration of the shutdown. Dr. Francis
Collins, agency director, estimated that each week the shutdown lasts will
force the facility to turn away about 200 patients, 30 of them children, who
want to enrol in studies of experimental treatments. Patients already at the
hospital are permitted to stay.
The shutdown began when Congress missed a midnight deadline on
Monday to pass temporary funding bill, stalled by conservative efforts to push
through a delay in Obama's health 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.
The Senate vote marked the fourth time during this fight
that it has rejected House Republican proposals, including an initial attempt
to defund the healthcare programme altogether.
House Republicans answered the latest Senate vote with a
proposal for legislation to reopen portions of the government, including iconic
national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, while still demanding concessions
on healthcare. The bills covered the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Park
Service and a portion of the Washington, DC, government funded with local tax
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
expedited passage under House rules.
The White House also issued veto threats against the bills.
White House spokesperson Jay Carney said it was "not a serious
Republican aides said all three bills that were sidetracked
could be brought up again on Wednesday under rules requiring a mere majority to
pass. They said the House might also vote on a measure to reopen the hospital
at the NIH, after several Democrats cited the impact on patients.
White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri told
MSNBC that the administration is open to changes in the healthcare law in
future negotiations, but not as part of passing a budget bill.
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 on Tuesday, while
European stocks mostly recovered after falling the day before the shutdown
deadline. Asian stocks were mixed.
In the House, conservative Rep. Marsha Blackburn predicted
the standoff would drag for several days. "People are going to realize
they can live with a lot less government," she told Fox News.
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 healthcare reform, which is
intended to provide coverage for the millions of Americans now uninsured.
Republicans passionately oppose the plan they have dubbed
"Obamacare" as wasteful and restricting freedom by requiring most
Americans to have health insurance.
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 on Tuesday to websites to shop for coverage sold by
private companies - with government subsidies available to many to lower their
National parks, museums in Washington and agencies like Nasa
and the Environmental Protection Agency nearly closed. The National Zoo in
Washington was closed to visitors and employees 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 defence department civilians who are exempt from
furloughs, amid worries that that the shutdown is damaging US credibility among
its international allies, defence decretary Chuck Hagel said.
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.
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.
Looming ahead is a potentially more dangerous fight:
Republicans are likely to take up the healthcare 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.
The White House was operating with a skeletal staff on Tuesday,
and officials were discussing whether Obama should change plans for a trip to
Asia scheduled to begin on Saturday.
The state department continued processing passports and
visas because that service is financed through fees. Embassies and consulates
overseas were also open.