U.S. Capitol quiet as federal government shutdown nears

Reuters

* After day of discord, no action in Senate until Mondayafternoon

* Partisans take to airwaves to pin blame on other side

* Government shutdown starts midnight on Monday; troopsstill to be paid

By David Lawder and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON, Sept 29 (Reuters) - With a deadline to avert afederal government shutdown fast approaching, the U.S. Capitolwas eerily quiet on Sunday as Republicans and Democrats waitedfor the other side to blink first and break the impasse overfunding.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives early onSunday passed a measure that ties government funding to aone-year delay of President Barack Obama's landmark healthcarerestructuring law. Senate Democrats have vowed to quash it.

If a stop-gap spending bill for the new fiscal year is notpassed before midnight on Monday, government agencies andprograms deemed non-essential will begin closing their doors forthe first time in 17 years.

In a sign that lawmakers increasingly view that asinevitable, the House unanimously approved a bill to ensure thatU.S. soldiers would be paid no matter what happened.

The high-stakes chess match in Congress will resume onMonday when the Democratic-controlled Senate reconvenes at 2p.m. (1800 GMT). Senate Democrats will then attempt to strip twoRepublican amendments from the spending bill: the one thatdelays the 2010 healthcare law known as Obamacare and another torepeal a medical device tax that would help pay for the program.

They would then send a bill with a simple extension ofgovernment spending back to the House, putting the legislativehot potato back in Republican House Speaker John Boehner's lapas the shutdown looms.

"Tomorrow, the Senate will do exactly what we said we woulddo and reject these measures," said Adam Jentleson, a spokesmanfor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "At that point,Republicans will be faced with the same choice they have alwaysfaced: put the Senate's clean funding bill on the floor and letit pass with bipartisan votes, or force a Republican governmentshutdown."

DEBT LIMIT PRELUDE

The funding standoff is a harbinger of the next bigpolitical battle: a far-more consequential bill to raise thefederal government's borrowing authority. Failure to raise the$16.7 trillion debt ceiling by mid-October would force theUnited States to default on some payment obligations - an eventthat could cripple its economy and send shockwaves around theglobe.

And yet, neither side wants to be the one to cast the finalvote that would lead to a shutdown. Polls consistently show theAmerican public is tired of political showdowns and opposed to ashutdown.

There were no signs from Congress or the White House oflast-minute negotiations to resolve the standoff. Instead,Democrats and Republicans spent their energies trying to pinblame on the other side for failing to avoid a calamity.

No lawmakers were seen in or around the Capitol duringdaylight hours on Sunday until late afternoon when 16 HouseRepublican members held a news conference on the Senate steps tocall on Reid to pass the funding and "Obamacare" delay measure.

"I personally believe that Senator Reid and the president,for political purposes, want to shut down the government. It's ascorched earth policy," said Representative Tim Griffin, aRepublican from Arkansas.

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer shot back that theRepublican tactics were a "subterfuge" to avoid blame for ashutdown. "So instead of continued game-playing, we urge SpeakerBoehner to reconvene the House, pass a clean CR (continuingresolution) and move on," he said in a statement.

Boehner and Reid have taken a low profile as the deadlinedraws closer, leaving on-camera appearances to deputies andoften speaking through their press staffs.

One of Boehner's deputies, Representative Kevin McCarthy,said if the Senate stripped the funding bill of the "Obamacare"provisions, House Republicans would simply return it with otherchanges to the healthcare law.

"It will be additions that Senate Democrats said they cansupport," McCarthy told "Fox News Sunday," without specifyingthese "other options."

The repeal of the medical device tax did win some Democraticsupport in the House early on Sunday.

VETO THREAT

Obama has threatened to veto any bill that delays hishealthcare program.

The funding impasse is the culmination of more than threeyears of failed conservative efforts to repeal "Obamacare," aprogram aimed at extending health insurance to millions of thosewithout coverage.

Republicans argue that the healthcare law, key parts ofwhich are set to launch on Oct. 1, is a massive and unnecessarygovernment intrusion into medicine that will cause premiums toskyrocket and damage the economy.

And if the battle over "Obamacare" pushes up to themid-October deadline to raise the debt ceiling, U.S. stocks may suffer. When gridlock threatened a debt default in 2011, the DowJones industrials fell about 2,100 points from July 21 to Aug.9, with the market needing two more months to regain itsfooting.

Under a government shutdown, more than a million federalemployees would be furloughed from their jobs, with the impactdepending on the duration of a shutdown.

The current timetable could leave Boehner with the mostdifficult decision of his career: whether to approve a cleancontinuing resolution the Senate will likely send it Mondayafternoon or allow the government to shut down for the firsttime since late 1995.

In a government shutdown, spending for functions consideredessential, related to national security or public safety, wouldcontinue along with benefit programs such as Medicare healthinsurance and Social Security retirement benefits for seniors.

But civilian federal employees - from people who processforms and handle regulatory matters to workers at national parksand museums in Washington - would be temporarily out of work.

The last government shutdown ran from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan.6, 1996, and was the product of a budget battle betweenDemocratic President Bill Clinton and Republicans, led bythen-Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Republicans suffered a public backlash when votersre-elected Clinton in a landslide the following November, alesson never forgotten by senior Republicans, including Boehner.

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