The first shutdown of government agencies in almost two decades became a reality late Monday night as the House and Senate were unable to pass a stopgap funding measure by the start of the new fiscal year Tuesday.
As hard-line House Republicans demanded that any funding bill contain anti-Obamacare provisions, the Senate steadfastly refused to go along, despite a flurry of legislative maneuvers on Monday.
The result was that the outcome leaders in both parties said they wanted to avoid was announced in a memo from the administration to agencies shortly before midnight, directing them to shut down parts of the federal government.
The absence of a spending plan means as many as 800,000 nonessential federal workers could be furloughed; hundreds of thousands of others could be asked to work without pay (though President Obama signed a measure to ensure military personnel will be paid in a shutdown); federal offices and parks will be closed; and government services will be scaled back or halted for veterans, seniors, and others. Medicare, Social Security, military work, and public-safety functions will continue.
So will the fight in Congress. Following a 1 a.m. vote in which the House decided 228-199 to request formal, two-chamber conference committee negotiations with the Senate, House Speaker John Boehner said, "Under the constitution there is a way to resolve this process. That is to go to conference and talk through your differences."
"We're hoping that the Senate will take our offer to go to conference," Boehner said.
Yet Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor shortly before midnight Monday that Democrats plan to reject the proposal. He said that would be the first order of business when the Senate reconvenes at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Reid and other Democrats continued to insist that Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House leaders allow a vote on the Senate's six-month funding bill, which contains no anti-Obama riders. They insist it will pass.
"I would hope they would understand it is within their power, at any time; all they have to do is accept what we already passed," Reid said.
Reid also said: "We will not go to conference with a gun to our heads."
So ended a day of uncertainty and frustration on Capitol Hill in which an eleventh-hour deal between the House and Senate proved elusive, despite a great deal of legislative jockeying.
First the House amended the continuing resolution with a provision forcing members of Congress and their staffs to rely on Obamacare for their health coverage. The latest anti-Obamacare amendment, like two others before it, was quickly rejected with a partisan vote in the Senate, leaving the House, again, with only a "clean" funding bill.
A bipartisan group of senators was trying to forge a new consensus around going to conference with the House. "What we are trying to figure out is what the House is able to do," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "It's really easy to do Monday-morning quarterbacking from here."
Asked whether she thought the group could avert a shutdown, she said, "No," but crossed her fingers so a reporter was certain to see. Murkowski also acknowledged that the plan would be politically risky for Boehner, who could be criticized by conservative members of his conference who want to see the Affordable Care Act dismantled.
"Boy oh boy, if we had the plan, we'd get it over to the House," she said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the architect of the GOP approach to try to force Democrats to capitulate, called on the Republicans to continue the fight.
Cruz also offered to donate his salary to charity during a government shutdown, because lawmakers continue to get paid. Blaming Reid for the shutdown, Cruz argued that the majority leader was not compromising.
"Elected leaders should not be treated better than the American people, which is precisely why hardworking Americans deserve the same Obamacare exception that President Obama has already granted Members of Congress," Cruz said in a statement.
Senate Democrats had no defections when Reid moved to table the House's amendments three times over the past several days. Those included defunding Obamacare; delaying Obamacare and repealing a medical-device tax; and finally forcing Obamacare on Congress and the White House.
"The bottom line then is this. House Republicans face the same issues they faced yesterday and the day before and the day before and the day before. Let the Senate's clean [CR] pass," Reid said.
Democrats believe the public will blame the GOP for a shutdown, suggesting they think the blame game will play out as it did during the last shutdown in 1995 and 1996.
"To think that because of his willful faction of tea-party Republicans, he would allow this government to shut down, and continue to pay these games back and forth, is just inexcusable, inexcusable for anyone who calls himself a leader," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., referring to Boehner.
Reid also wants to make a point to Republicans, who he has recently taken to calling "anarchists."
"With a bully, you cannot let them slap you around, because they slap you around today, it's they slap you five or six times, tomorrow it's seven or eight times," Reid said. "We are not going to be bullied."
Senate Republicans could do little but watch Democrats work their will. Because of the Senate's rules, Republicans could not exercise the filibuster on the CR, according to aides.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has been one of the loudest opponents of Cruz's quest to tear down the Affordable Care Act by using the leverage afforded by a funding measure. "I'm not frustrated," he said. "I'm not frustrated in the least. I think this was—we kind of all knew where this was gonna end."
This article appears in the October 1, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as CR Deal Elusive As Government Shutdown Nears.