J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Compromise elusive, Republicans and Democrats engaged in finger-pointing Monday just hours before the first government shutdown in 17 years, driven by an intractable budget dispute over President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
House Republicans blamed Senate Democrats for taking the weekend off and resisting a House measure that would avert a shutdown — but only by delaying further implementation of the health care law for a year and eliminating a tax on medical devices.
"The Senate decided not to work yesterday," Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said shortly after the House began its session — and just hours before a threatened shutdown at midnight. "Well my goodness, if there's such an emergency, where are they?"
The Senate returns shortly after 2 p.m. EDT — just 10 hours before a threatened shutdown — and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his Democrats have made it clear that they want the House to vote on their straightforward bill to keep the government open. Reid plans votes to reject GOP-crafted amendments to delay the 3-year-old health care law and eliminate a tax on medical devices, and he has the numbers to prevail.
If no compromise can be reached by midnight, Americans would soon see the impact: National parks would close. Many low-to-moderate incomes borrowers and first-time homebuyers seeking government-backed mortgages could face delays. Passport applications would be delayed.
One program that will begin on Tuesday — even with a shutdown — is enrollment in new health care exchanges for millions of Americans — a crucial part of Obama's health care law. That's because most of the program is paid from monies not subject to congressional appropriations.
But about 800,000 federal workers, many already reeling from the effect of the automatic budget cuts, would be forced off the job without pay. Some critical services such as patrolling the borders, inspecting meat and controlling air traffic would continue. Social Security benefits would be sent, and the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs for the elderly and poor would continue to pay doctors and hospitals.
Tea party and conservative Republicans have forced Boehner and the House GOP leadership to couple the spending bill with efforts to dismantle the health care law. Democrats reject putting conditions on the temporary spending bill, saying that's akin to political ransom.
"I could sit here and say, 'Well, I'm not going to vote for a budget unless you agree to pass gun safety legislation.' That's not the way this place is supposed to operate," said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
Two moderate Republicans from Democratic-leaning states — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Rep. Charles Dent of Pennsylvania — signaled that they could back a straightforward spending bill.
"I would be supportive of it and I believe the votes are there in the House to pass it at that point," Dent said.
"We're not going to shut down the government," Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, a member of the House GOP leadership told reporters as he left a closed-door meeting of GOP leaders.
Since the last government shutdown 17 years ago, temporary funding bills known as continuing resolutions have been noncontroversial, with neither party willing to chance a shutdown to achieve legislative goals it couldn't otherwise win.
"You're going to shut down the government if you can't prevent millions of Americans from getting affordable care," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
A leader of the tea party Republicans, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, insisted the blame rests with Senate Democrats.
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