The U.S. government was poised to shut down for the first time in 17 years early Tuesday, after a Congress bitterly divided over President Obama’s signature health-care initiative failed to reach agreement to fund federal agencies.
Hours before a midnight deadline, the Republican House passed its third proposal in two weeks to fund the government for a matter of weeks. Like the previous plans, the new one sought to undermine the Affordable Care Act, this time by delaying enforcement of the “individual mandate,” a cornerstone of the law that requires all Americans to obtain health insurance.
The new measure also sought to strip lawmakers and their aides of long-standing government health benefits.
The Democratic-led Senate quickly rejected that plan on a party-line vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) urged House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to abandon the assault on the health-care law and pass a simple bill to keep the government open. Otherwise, Reid warned, “the responsibility for this Republican government shutdown will rest squarely on his shoulders.”
Boehner refused to yield. He called instead for a special committee to meet in the coming days to resolve differences between the two parties, leaving in limbo the fate of millions of federal workers and the services they provide.
The impasse means 800,000 federal workers will be furloughed Tuesday. National parks, monuments and museums, as well as most federal offices, will close. Tens of thousands of air-traffic controllers, prison guards and Border Patrol agents will be required to serve without pay. And many congressional hearings — including one scheduled for Tuesday on last month’s Washington Navy Yard shootings — will be postponed.
In a last-minute ray of hope for active-duty troops, Congress on Monday approved and sent to the White House an agreement to keep issuing military paychecks. But Obama warned that the broader economy, which is finally starting to recover from the shocks of the past six years, would take a substantial hit if congressional gridlock shutters “America’s largest employer.”
“Keeping the people’s government open is not a concession to me. Keeping vital services running and hundreds of thousands of Americans on the job is not something you ‘give’ to the other side. It’s our basic responsibility,” Obama said in a statement Monday evening at the White House.
Privately, senior Republicans predicted that the closure would last at least a week. A fraction of today’s House Republicans were on Capitol Hill in 1995 and 1996 when a Republican-led Congress last shut down the government in a dispute over the budget with a Democratic president. Younger lawmakers don’t remember the pain the shutdown caused constituents, senior Republicans said. And many of them now question the conventional wisdom that the closures weakened the GOP presidential candidate in 1996 and nearly cost the party control of the House.
Democrats predicted that if the shutdown stretches into the weekend, the government-funding dispute could be rolled into an even more serious battle over the $16.7 trillion federal debt limit. The Treasury Department will begin running short of cash to pay the nation’s bills as soon as Oct. 17 unless Congress approves additional borrowing authority. With so little time remaining to avoid what would be the nation’s first default, Democratic aides predicted that negotiations to reopen the government may be merged into the debt-limit talks.
On Monday evening, Obama telephoned Boehner to urge him to reconsider his stance on the health-care law. In a call that lasted nearly 10 minutes, according to Boehner’s office, the president reiterated his insistence that there would be no negotiations over the debt limit, and that Congress must pay the bills it has incurred.
Boehner responded by mocking Obama in a speech on the House floor.
“ ‘I’m not going to negotiate,’ ” he said, quoting Obama. “I would say to the president: This is not about me. It’s not about Republicans here in Congress. It’s about fairness.”
The speech drew applause for the embattled speaker, who argued passionately that Republicans were merely seeking “fairness” for working people. Obama has delayed a mandate for employers to insure workers and delayed other requirements for big unions, Boehner said. “Yet they stick our constituents with a bill they don’t like and a bill they can’t afford,” he said.
Despite the show of unity, Republicans on both sides of the Capitol remain deeply divided about the attack on the health-care law. In the House, a group of more moderate Republicans was seething about the decision to bow to the forces that oppose the Affordable Care Act, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his allies on the right, including such outside groups as Heritage Action for America.
On Monday, some publicly urged Boehner to drop the issue and seek the help of House Democrats to pass the simple government-funding bill that the Senate approved last week.
“I don’t want to shut down the government,” said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), who is trying to become her state’s first GOP senator since the 1950s, adding that she was inclined to support a “clean” funding bill.
Frustrations also were simmering among Senate Republicans, who complained that House leaders were pressing the attack in direct opposition to public opinion. Polls show that voters overwhelmingly disapprove of using the threat of a shutdown to defund the health-care law and that blame for a shutdown will fall squarely on Republicans.
“By wanting to repeal Obamacare using this method, it defies what the popular will is,” said Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, who campaigned last year on behalf of his party’s national ticket.
“I campaigned in 2012 all over this country for months: ‘Repeal and replace Obamacare.’ That was not the mandate of the voters,” McCain said. “If they wanted to repeal Obamacare, the 2012 election would have been probably significantly different.”
Adding to the tension Monday was Boehner’s decision to add the provision that would strip lawmakers, congressional staff members and White House aides of the employer subsidies for health insurance they have received for many years.
Now that lawmakers and their aides must join the new health-insurance exchanges, some conservative groups have criticized the subsidies, worth about $5,000 a year for individual coverage and $10,000 for families, as a “special exemption” from the new law. By including the provision, House leaders hoped to attract conservative support and put pressure on Senate Democrats, who faced the choice of shutting down the government to protect their own perks.
“On what flooding peninsula can you stand when it’s a question of delaying the individual mandate, ending member subsidies and funding the government?” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). If Reid kills it, “the senators he’s going to protect become the subject of incredible scrutiny.”
Even some Republicans were uneasy about the prospect of dealing their aides — and some of their colleagues — the equivalent of a big pay cut. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called it an “outrage,” adding that Boehner had worked directly with Reid and the Obama administration to make sure the subsidies would stay in place when congressional employees join the exchanges next year.
Boehner and his team presented the proposal to rank-and-file Republicans in a closed-door meeting Monday. For more than an hour and a half, lawmakers argued about the plan. They emerged with an unusual number of public dissenters, including Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), one of a dozen Republicans who ultimately voted against the proposal.
“I don’t want to be the facilitator of a disastrous process and plan,” he said.
Still, most Republicans endorsed the deal, even if somewhat reluctantly. “I think this is a principled call by leadership and it has the support of the conference,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), one of Boehner’s closest friends.
Democrats, meanwhile, were united against any attempt by Republicans to extract concessions now, especially with the larger fight over the debt limit swiftly approaching.
“The bottom line is very simple,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “You negotiate on this, they will up the ante for the debt limit.”