NATIONAL — President Barack Obama on Monday accused Republicans of holding the country hostage as the nasty, seemingly unending battle over ObamaCare largely shut down the government of the United States.
A midnight deadline came and went without any deal, sending the federal government into a freeze that has no quick end in sight.
Speaking at the White House before the deadline passed, Obama told reporters the Republicans were attempting “to extract a ransom … just because there is a law there that (they) don’t like.”
The shutdown is expected to result in the temporary layoffs of about 750,000 civil servants and potentially weaken the economy until lawmakers can agree on a renewed budget.
The stakes are high. As the largest employer in the U.S., a prolonged shutdown would have serious effects on the economy, which is still feeling the aftershocks of the 2008 recession. Studies of previous shutdowns indicate they could take about $8 billion a week out of the economy. Past closures in 1995 and 1996 sent stock markets down as much as two per cent. Fear of a shutdown caused the Dow to fall almost one per cent on Monday.
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said late Monday in a memorandum to agency heads that there was no indication Congress would approve a short-term funding measure before the midnight deadline. She said federal agencies should execute their plans for an orderly shutdown.
Burwell said the Obama administration urged Congress to move quickly so critical government services could be restored. She said a shutdown affects hundreds of thousands of workers who will be sent home and inconveniences millions who rely on federal services.
She said some critical functions, like the military and air traffic control, would remain open.
The threat has been looming for weeks as Washington’s extreme adversarial politics has escalated into yet another standoff over fiscal policy.
Led primarily by the far-right followers of the Tea Party, Republicans last week launched what Democrats describe as “extortionist” tactics designed ultimately to destroy Obama’s cherished affordable health-care program.
The Republican-controlled House threatened last week to pass a budget that would defund the program, essentially killing it. Over the weekend, the House approved a modified budget bill that would delay implementation of the health-care program for one year and called on Obama to suggest a compromise.
The Democrat-controlled Senate quickly rejected the bill Monday afternoon by a vote of 54-46 that tracked party lines and Obama vowed to veto any bill that weakened ObamaCare.
Moderate House Republicans who wanted to fund the government with no strings attached feverishly made calls to stage what would have been effectively a revolt but failed to line up votes from 17 Republicans needed to defy their leadership.
As the U.S. crept closer to the critical midnight hour, a revolt by a small group of moderate House Republicans on Monday evening briefly raised hopes that the fiscal crisis could be avoided. These Republicans voiced support for a temporary budget-renewal bill that would postpone the battle over health care for another day. The rebels, however, were quickly dispatched in a House vote that again testified to the power of the Tea Party.
“We have people in the conference, I believe, who’d be just as happy to have the government shutdown,” said Rep. Peter King (R-New York). “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.”
“Unfortunately right now the House Republicans continue to tie funding of the government to ideological demands like limiting a woman’s access to contraception or delaying the affordable care act, all to save face after making some impossible promises to the extreme right wing of their party,” Obama said Monday.
“The affordable care act is moving forward,” he said. “You can’t shut it down.”
Obama’s health-care plan is designed to help about 30 million Americans, many of who are unemployed, obtain private health insurance. Although the program began only this week, Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz senselessly claim it is in disarray, “hurts millions of Americans” and “should be repealed entirely.”
Polls indicate that while up to 56 per cent of Americans oppose the plan, 11 per cent are against it because they don’t think it goes far enough. Many want a more universal government-funded health-care program.
Architect of the government shutdown is Rep. Mark Meadows, who represents the western part of North Carolina and successfully convinced 79 of his colleagues to sign on to his scheme behind the bright lights of the television cameras and the hot microphones.
Republican leaders in the House were reluctant and dismissed the plan — at first. Speaker John Boehner and many Republicans believed the strategy could lead to shutdown as the Democratic-led Senate would never agree to such a plan.
Additionally, leaders believed that Republicans would be blamed for a shut down. Polling backs up their concern. Recent poll indicate that a majority of Americans would blame Republicans.
The House has now voted 42 times to stop funding or repealing all or parts of Obamacare and many Republicans believe the idea is a lost cause, but a minority bloc of Republicans is holding the nation hostage because rigged voting districts leave little pressure to court centrist voters, while Tea Party-aligned Republicans face great pressure to show conservative activists that they are staying true to their ideological roots than working to keep the government operating effectively.
Tea Party lawmakers don’t run for office nationally, but in districts where they are more secure than ever in their jobs, thanks to careful redistricting after the 2010 census and increased polarization among voters.
The Cook Political Report, a Washington tipsheet, estimates that 205 of the chamber’s 232 Republicans can count on a safe re-election race a year from now. Only 11 Republican seats are viewed as competitive.
The one exception to the legislative futility was a bill to ensure that military service members would be paid during the shutdown. Obama signed it into law late Monday night.
Indeed, among the ironies of the standoff is that a shutdown will have no effect on the law the Republicans tried to block. The money to implement the law does not depend on the annual spending bills stuck in the congressional logjam. A major element of Obamacare, online marketplaces that consumers without insurance can use to buy coverage, will open to the public Tuesday.
“That funding is already in place. You can’t shut it down,” Obama said during a short appearance earlier in the White House briefing room.
“This is a law that passed both houses of Congress, a law that bears my signature, a law that the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional, a law that voters chose not to repeal last November,” he said, referring to his reelection.
“I’m always willing to work with anyone of either party to make sure the Affordable Care Act works better,” he added. “But 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.”
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