The US Congress building is seen at dusk on the eve of a possible government shutdown as Congress battles out the budget in Washington, DC, September 30, 2013. AFP PHOTO/ MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON -- The federal government shut down for the first time in nearly two decades following more than a week of legislative jockeying by House Republicans to extract concessions from President Obama and Senate Democrats on the Affordable Care Act.
Shortly before midnight, Obama notified government agencies to prepare to cease operations Tuesday, even as House Republicans worked on a fourth and final attempt to again advance a plan to delay the individual mandate to buy health insurance exchanges that open for enrollment Tuesday.
The House Republicans' moves came as a series of polls released Monday showed that they were bearing the bulk of the blame for the shutdown. One of their Senate colleagues, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party's 2008 presidential nominee, called their position doomed to eventual failure.
Republicans were also seeking a motion to start formal negotiations, called a conference committee, with the Senate on the stopgap spending measure - an unusual request for a six-week spending bill the funds the government at current levels, but it provides Republicans a vehicle to keep the debate going. It was quickly rejected by Senate Democrats.
"We will not go to conference with a gun to our head," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said late Monday.
Reid and other Senate Democrats urged House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to put a Senate-passed bill on the floor to keep the government funded through Nov. 15 and that did not include any provisions affecting the health care law. Boehner refused.
"That's not going to happen," he said.
The Senate voted twice Monday to reject House efforts to delay the individual mandate, repeal a 2.3% tax on medical devices enacted to help pay for the law, and a proposal to eliminate a proposed subsidy to members of Congress, their staffs, and members of the Obama administration to buy insurance in the new system.
Obama reiterated that he would not sign any bill that seeks to dismantle the law. "One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn't get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election," Obama said at the White House.
The president did sign late Monday a bill that would pay members of the military during a shutdown.
Reid maintained the only way to avoid a shutdown was to approve the Senate-passed stopgap spending bill with no provisions on "Obamacare."
"They try to send us something back, they're spinning their wheels," Reid said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Democrats would deliver most of their 200 votes if Boehner would agree to put the Senate bill on the floor. "I think it's very clear Democrats are making an explicit offer to the speaker to keep government open. Whatever he may bring out of his caucus to bring to the floor, we hope that he will also give a vote to the clean (funding bill)," Pelosi said.
The House provision on insurance subsidies was a reaction to an Office of Personnel Management decision to provide members of Congress and their staffs the same amount of money they get now as part of the federal employees insurance system to pay for policies they will now have to buy on local exchanges, which are state websites where people can shop for and buy insurance.
"There should be no special treatment for the well-connected under ObamaCare. Delaying the individual mandate and withdrawing special exemptions for Congress is the fair thing to do," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a statement.
Some of the health care law is already in place, including provisions that expand prescription-drug discounts and allow young people up to age 26 to remain on their parents' health insurance policies. Obama said Monday that those exchanges will open regardless of what Congress does.
"We're at an impasse that can only be resolved by Speaker Boehner going to his caucus and saying, 'Enough is enough,'" Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and a former campaign committee chairman, said at a breakfast hosted Monday by The Christian Science Monitor.
The standoff has energized Tea Party organizations, which have made dismantling the health care law a top priority and have exercised substantial influence over House Republicans elected with their help since 2010.
"What's happening in Washington right now is largely a result of the grass roots speaking with one voice at the same time," said Dean Clancy, vice president of public policy for FreedomWorks, one of the leading Tea Party-affiliated groups. His group, which touts an e-mail list and social media following of more than 6 million, said it has driven more than 50,000 calls to Congress in recent weeks as part of the effort to defund the law.
"We are setting the agenda in Washington, and it feels good," he said.
Van Hollen said he's not sure when a shutdown will end. "I think the scary thing about this period we're in is that there's no clear end point to a shutdown," he said.
The last time the government shut down was in 1995-96 for a combined period of 28 days during budget standoffs between the Clinton administration and a Republican Congress. Most Americans would not feel the effects of a short-term shutdown because most essential government operations would continue, but a longer-term shutdown could negatively affect the economy and federal workers and inconvenience Americans in need of government services.
Contributing: David Jackson, Gregory Korte and Fredreka Schouten.
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