Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Congress plunged the nation into a partial government shutdown Tuesday as a protracted dispute over President Barack Obama's signature health care law reached a boiling point, forcing some 800,000 federal workers off the job. Obama readied a midday statement to the nation as Democrats and Republicans maintained their blame-each-other duel on Capitol Hill.
Even as Obama prepared to meet with citizens signing up for his health care program and then make a lunch-hour speech in the Rose Garden, the White House cut back to a skeletal staff. The U.S. Capitol canceled tours not personally led by Congress members. "Closed" signs and barricades sprang up at the Lincoln Memorial, and national parks and federal workplaces across the country were following suit.
With the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate stalemated, it was unclear how long the shutdown — and the loss of some government programs and services — could last. The Senate early Tuesday rejected the House's call to form a negotiating committee to resolve the deadlock.
Moments after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., laid full blame on House Republicans, declaring, "The government is closed because of the irrationality of what's going on on the other side of the Capitol."
Obama communications director Jennifer Palmieri told MSNBC that the White House was open to changes in the health care law in future negotiations, but not as part of passing a budget bill. She compared that to negotiating with "a gun pointed to your head."
In the House, conservative Rep. Marsha Blackburn predicted the standoff would drag on if Obama and Senate Democrats refused to bargain.
"You may see a partial shutdown for several days," Blackburn, R-Tenn., told Fox News. "People are going to realize they can live with a lot less government."
The health care law itself was unaffected as enrollment opened Tuesday for millions of people shopping for medical insurance.
It was the first shutdown since a budget battle between Republicans in Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton in the winter of 1995-1996.
Traffic was lighter and the subway less crowded in Washington Tuesday morning. The Smithsonian museums website displayed a red banner noting that "all Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are closed." On the zoo's website, panda mom Mei Xiang could be seen snuggling with her weeks-old cub through the morning, until the feed was abruptly cut off around 8 a.m. Care of the animals will continue.
Agencies like NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency were being nearly shuttered. People classified as essential government employees — such as air traffic controllers, Border Patrol agents and most food inspectors — will continue to work.
U.S. embassies and consulates will continue to issue visas and service passports because these activities are supported by fees not subject to congressional appropriations, according to State Department officials.
The White House was operating with a skeletal staff, including household workers taking care of the first family's residence and presidential aides working in the West Wing. A groundskeeper working outside Tuesday morning at daybreak said he was doing the job normally handled by four workers.
Given the shutdown, White House officials were discussing whether President Barack Obama should change plans for a trip to Asia scheduled to begin Saturday.
The military will be paid under legislation freshly signed by Obama, but paychecks for other federal workers will be withheld until the impasse is broken. Federal workers were told to report to their jobs for a half-day but to perform only shutdown tasks like changing email greetings and closing down agencies' Internet sites.
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