Deadlocked government cruises toward shutdown
Anita Kumar, William Douglas and Lesley Clark - McClatchy Washington Bureau
Dec 17, 2015 at 5:21 PM
WASHINGTON (MCT) - A deeply divided Congress remained deadlocked late Monday over the federal budget, setting up a showdown that will likely lead to a partial shutdown of the government for the first time in nearly two decades.
The two sides of Congress engaged in a high-stakes political showdown well into the night as the government neared the end of the fiscal year at midnight with no law in place to finance parts of the new fiscal year.
Without a deal, a shutdown could delay Social Security payments, passport and visa applications, shutter national parks and museums and furlough hundreds of thousands of federal employees.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 228-201 late Monday to fund the government for two months while delaying the new federal health care law's mandate that Americans be required to have insurance and canceling health care subsidies for members of Congress. The Democratic-led Senate voted 54-46 to reject the proposal, just as it did earlier in the day to a similar measure that would have postponed the entire health care law.
As the clock ticked toward deadline, the House readied a new tactic, looking to set up direct negotiations with the Senate by appointing a team of budget negotiators called "conferees" to work with Senate counterparts to hash out a compromise in the coming days. The last-minute pitch was not expected to stop a shutdown.
President Barack Obama said earlier Monday in a televised address to the nation that he held out hope Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill could find a solution, but he insisted again that he would not negotiate over on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare, or on a coming clash over whether Congress should raise the debt ceiling and avoid a first-of-its kind default on its debts.
"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 re-fight the results of an election," Obama said. "You don't get to extract a ransom for doing your job, for doing what you're supposed to be doing anyway, where just because there's a law there that you don't like."
Obama on Monday evening placed separate calls to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He told them anew that he would not negotiate on health care as part of the budget bill.
Boehner told the president in a 10-minute call that the health care law is "costing jobs and that American families are being denied basic fairness when big businesses are getting exemptions that they are not," said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck.
During the contentious floor debate in the House on Monday, Democrats and Republicans stuck firm to their beliefs.
Boehner mimicked Obama during his phone call earlier.
"I talked to the president earlier tonight _ 'I'm not going to negotiate, I'm not going to negotiate, we're not going to do this,' " Boehner said of his talk with the president. "Well I would say to the president, this is not about me, and it's not about Republicans in the Congress. It's about fairness for the American people."
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., grew angry on the floor during the debate.
"What a shameful day this is in the House of Representatives," Hoyer told his colleagues. "Tonight is about the continuing destructive obsession our Republicans friends have."
Both chambers have passed legislation that assures military personnel would be paid in the event of a shutdown. Obama signed that bill late Monday.
"Albert Einstein defined insanity as, 'Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,' " Reid said on the Senate floor. "Tonight, we have more proof that House Republicans have lost their minds. Instead of allowing all 435 members of the House of Representatives to vote on the Senate's bill to keep the government open for business, Speaker Boehner is once again pushing a government shutdown."
As the day wore on, there were some signs that Republicans in both chambers were starting to differ over how to proceed. Some House members initially thought of killing the latest proposal because it didn't go far enough, while some senators floated a proposal that would extend for one week the government's current spending levels, which would prevent workers from being furloughed and keep government agencies and services open as lawmakers continued to haggle over larger issues.
"Despite the Democrats' refusal to work with the House to solve the problem, Republicans are working to protect the troops, prevent a shutdown and find solutions to the difficulties caused by Senate Democrats' delay," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell.
But Senate Democrats were cool to the idea, and it remained unclear whether the House and White House would accept the plan.
"You cannot negotiate when you take hostages and extort," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "We're happy to negotiate. There's a budget. They can talk about spending for (Obamacare) in the budget. You don't do it this way."
If a shutdown occurred, about 800,000 of the more than 2 million federal employees would stay home. But more than a million active duty military would remain on the job. After the government reopens, lawmakers must decide whether employees _ both those who worked and those who didn't _ should get paid.
Some critical services would remain, but others would not.
Mail delivery would continue but loan programs to small businesses, farmers and homeowners would cease. Inspectors still would regulate food and drugs but research programs would be halted. Taxes would be collected but judges would have to go home when the courts run out of funds. Prisoners still would be held in federal custody but money for recovery efforts following Superstorm Sandy would be reduced.
The health care law that is the focus of the dispute between Republicans and Democrats would continue to be implemented, because much of its funding comes from other sources, including new taxes and fees and cuts to other programs.
"Let me be clear about this. ... The Affordable Care Act is moving forward," Obama said. "That funding is already in place. You can't shut it down."
The president and his political appointees would still report to work. Lawmakers would do the same but would decide who on their staffs was essential.
Some lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, announced Monday that they would forego their salaries during a shutdown and contribute the money to charity.
"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," he said.
Congress has failed to meet the deadline for approving spending bills 17 times since the 1970s, resulting in partial shutdowns lasting from one day to three weeks. The last time was for a 21-day stretch in December 1995 and January 1996 when some - but not all - spending bills had been signed into law.