WASHINGTON (CNN) — While up to 800,000 federal workers faced life without a paycheck as Day One of the government shutdown kicked in, Democrats and Republicans persisted in talking past each other without actually talking to each other to end the nation’s latest fiscal crisis.
The Republican-led House offered its latest gambit on Tuesday night, but failed in separate votes to approve piecemeal funding for three specific programs — the District of Columbia, the Department of Veterans Affairs and national parks.
The votes required a two-thirds majority for passage, which would have required hefty Democratic support. That did not materialize, though House leadership aides say the plan is to bring up the same measures again Wednesday in a way that would require only a simple majority to pass.
Aside from conservative political calculations that calling these votes would put their ideological foes in a tough spot, it appears they’ll have little practical impact since the Democratic-led Senate wasn’t about to acquiesce and the White House promised a veto if they did somehow pass the Senate, too.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid derided the strategy as “just another wacky idea by tea party Republicans,” a clear example of the rhetorical firefights that have marked the latest pitched battle over spending. This one has been fueled by GOP efforts to condition any continued funding of the U.S. government with the elimination — or at least the delay — of Obamacare.
President Barack Obama weighed in Tuesday, the start of the 2014 fiscal year, by lambasting the Republicans for being “reckless” in their apparent willingness to take down the government in order to take down the law overhauling major aspects of health care coverage. He championed the law, signed it in 2010, then saw it upheld by the Supreme Court last year.
Saying the shutdown’s goal is to hinder government efforts to provide health insurance to 15 percent of the U.S. population that doesn’t have coverage, the president said it was “strange that one party would make keeping people uninsured the centerpiece of their agenda.”
“Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to fund the government unless we defunded or dismantled the Affordable Care Act,” he said, flanked by people who the White House said had benefited from the health care reform.
Reid, for one, indicated he’s open to working with the House on budgetary matters — “but not with the government closed” and not by making it all about the legislation widely known as Obamacare.
Until then, he and other Democrats pushed for the House to pass a “clean” spending plan to fund the government for a few months before negotiating over parts of the health care law.
The latest shutdown was not the first for the government. The last time it happened, 18 years ago during the Clinton administration, the stalemate lasted 21 days.
Now, the House and Senate have both refused to budge from their visions for the budget and, beyond that, health care reform.
The Senate began its day on Tuesday by rejecting a GOP counteroffer that would have delayed Obamacare for a year and ended federally provided health care for the president, members of Congress and their staffs while funding the government for 11 weeks.
The House GOP plan also called for a conference committee, which usually results from competing legislation from the two chambers on major issues, rather than a short-term continuing resolution intended to keep the government running for a few weeks.
Even if there was somehow an agreement for a month, Congress would have another crisis on its hands: whether or not to raise the U.S. debt ceiling by Oct. 17, when the U.S. government is set to run out of money to pay creditors unless it increases how much it can borrow.
Writing in USA Today, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, dug in his heels, saying “there is no way Congress can or should pass such a bill without spending cuts and reforms to deal with the debt and deficit.”
Yet Obama offered no indication that he’ll budge. Noting that such Republican brinkmanship in 2011 led to the first-ever downgrade of the U.S. credit rating, he said he “will not negotiate over Congress’ responsibility to pay bills it’s already racked up.”
“I’m not going to allow anybody to drag the good name of the United States of America through the mud just to re-fight a settled election or extract ideological demands,” the president said. “Nobody gets to hurt our economy and millions of hard-working families over a law you don’t like.”
At the heart of the issue is the insistence by House Republicans that any spending plan for the new fiscal year include anti-Obamacare amendments. Senate Democrats are just as insistent that it doesn’t.
Obamacare isn’t directly tied to funding the government. But it’s so unpopular among the Republican tea party conservatives that they want it undercut, if not outright repealed. For instance, this week Republican Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana called it “the most insidious law known to man.”
Both Democrats and Republicans say that a clean spending measure — with no Obamacare amendments, as urged by the president and his allies — would pass the House with support from the Democratic minority and moderate Republicans.
Veteran GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona noted that any attempt to repeal Obamacare was going to fail because of Obama’s veto, which would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate to overcome. And GOP Rep. Peter King of New York said the problem is tea party conservatives tied to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who “really care about nothing but their own agenda” driving the Republican approach in the House.
“We have people in the conference, I believe, who’d be just as happy to have the government shut down,” said King, who has been among the Republican legislators pushing for a “clean” funding bill without anti-Obamacare provisions. “They live in these narrow echo chambers. They listen to themselves and their tea party friends. That keeps them going, forgetting that the rest of the country thinks we’re crazy.”