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US federal government shuts down

01 October 2013, 19:40

Washington - Monuments closed, offices fell silent and 800,000 public servants were told to stay at home on Tuesday as Washington's perennial political crisis forced the first government shutdown in 17 years.

The effects of the budget battle ranged from the poignant to the symbolic. A social program that provides food to poor women and children was hit and the Statue of Liberty was closed to visitors.

Under the Capitol, where rival clans of lawmakers failed overnight to find an eleventh-hour deal to pass a federal budget, the National Mall was sealed off by a sign marked "area closed."

Prospects of a swift resolution to the crisis were unclear and economists warned that the struggling US economic recovery could suffer if the shutdown drags on for more than just a few days.

In a zero-sum battle typical of the divided US political system, Republicans tied new government funding to attempts to delay or dismantle President Barack Obama's signature health care reform.

Each time, their effort was killed by Obama's allies in the Democratic-led Senate, leaving the government in limbo when its money ran out at the end of the fiscal year at midnight Monday.

Obama railed against the Republican tactics on Tuesday, accusing his rivals of waging an "ideological crusade" to kill his health law.

"This Republican shutdown did not have to happen -- I want every American to understand why it did happen," Obama said in the White House Rose Garden.

"They have shut down the government over an ideological crusade to deny affordable healthcare to millions of Americans."

Some federal agencies deemed non-essential were all but closed. Some 97 percent of NASA's staff were sent home, although those supporting the crew of the International Space Station were kept on.

Tourists at New York's iconic Statue of Liberty were left crestfallen after being shut out of the landmark.

"I was very happy, I had tickets... and now it's impossible," said Stefan Neuhaus, a retiree from Berlin.

Other government-funded bodies seen as doing urgent work, like the military and border patrol, were kept at full strength, but the Pentagon was due to stand down almost half of its 800,000 civilian employees.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday said voters oppose the shutdown of the government as a way to derail Obamacare by a margin of 72 percent to 22 percent.

While Obama supporters blamed the deadlock on a relatively small faction of "Tea Party" conservatives in the Republican-led House of Representatives, Congress as a whole has lost prestige.

"House of Turds," headlined the New York Daily News above a parody picture of Republican House Speaker John Boehner as the corrupt anti-hero of Washington television drama "House of Cards."

"DC cess-pols shut down government. They get paid while nation suffers," it trumpeted.

Social media sites such as Twitter lit up with popular derision.

More than 13,000 people mockingly retweeted a message from the US Capitol, the seat of Congress: "Due to a lapse in government funding, this account will not be active until further notice."

A few hours into the shutdown, Republicans in the House appointed delegates, or conferees, to negotiate with the Senate later on a spending plan to get the government up and running again.

But if they still want to tinker with Obamacare, the Senate will not negotiate, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.

A further bid to broker a deal ended in failure on Tuesday when the Senate rejected a measure calling for a conference so negotiators from both chambers could thrash out a temporary budget.

The crisis is rooted in the Tea Party campaign to overturn Obamacare, the president's landmark domestic political achievement, key portions of which came into force on Tuesday.

More broadly, the shutdown is the most serious crisis yet in a series of rolling ideological skirmishes between Democrat Obama and House Republicans over the scope of the US government.

Obama warned that a government shutdown could badly damage an economy which has endured a sluggish recovery from the worst recession in decades.

"We may not know the full impact of this Republican shutdown for some time," Obama said. "But we do know a couple of things. We know that the last time Republicans shut down the government in 1996, it hurt our economy."

Consultants Macroeconomic Advisors said it would slow growth, recorded at a 2.5 percent annual pace in the second quarter.

A two-week shutdown would cut 0.3 percentage point off of gross domestic production.

Republicans are also demanding Obama make concessions in the health care law to secure a lifting of the current $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, without which the United States would begin to default on its debts for the first time in history by the middle of October.




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