WASHINGTON — Congress remained at a standstill on Tuesday, unable to break its impasse and put a quick end to a government shutdown that kept 800,000 federal workers home, shuttered monuments and museums, and put on stark display the dysfunctional state of America’s political system.
Throughout the day, politicians delivered angry speeches, appeared on television, and engaged in plenty of political
theater. But there was very little actual negotiating going on inside a US Capitol that was at times eerily quiet.
As night fell, political leaders were planning to keep the government shut down not only a second day but, with no solution in sight, indefinitely.
Most Republicans continue to insist that any government funding bill include cuts to President Obama’s health care law. But Democrats have declared that a nonstarter, saying the law has already been approved by Congress, upheld by the Supreme Court, and is now being implemented.
In a moment that seemed to encapsulate the absurd situation the country finds itself in, elderly World War II veterans were forced to remove barricades to roll their wheelchairs to a closed World War II Memorial on the National Mall. During a brief standoff, they were reportedly assisted by several congressional members who hours earlier helped trigger the shutdown by failing to pass a budget.
House Speaker John Boehner rallied his side to continue pushing for changes in the health care law, telling them in a closed-door meeting they were doing the right thing. The idea of a straight vote on keeping government funded without tying it to health care wasn’t even discussed, attendees said.
“We are a unified team, I can tell you that,” Representative Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican, said as he emerged from the meeting. “This is a Braveheart moment.”
Tours halted and congressional offices stopped much of their normal constituent work. The Defense Department announced that all sports at service academies — including this weekend’s Navy-Air Force football game — will be suspended.
There were “closed” signs around landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial. Federal twitter accounts stopped sending messages, and government websites were no longer updated.
The latest House Republican plan to fund only certain portions of the government — national parks, veterans services, and the District of Columbia — was pilloried before it was even voted on. Obama threatened to veto it and Senate majority leader Harry Reid called it “just another wacky idea from the Tea Party-driven Republicans.”
House Republicans, in an attempt to put Democrats on the spot and essentially dare them to vote against measures that included popular programs, called for a vote requiring a two-thirds majority. But the measures all failed on Tuesday night, with Democrats remaining mostly united.
“People shouldn’t have to choose between help for our veterans and cancer research,” Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said several hours before the House votes. “And we shouldn’t have to choose between visiting our national parks or enrolling kids in Head Start.”
“We’re happy to discuss how to fund the government, but not with a gun to our heads,” he added. “Open up all of the government, and then we can have a fruitful discussion.”
The government shutdown, which began on Tuesday, is the result of several weeks of failed efforts to strike a deal. The debate culminated on Monday night with several proposals being sent back and forth between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The last offer from House Republicans was to form a conference committee, made up of members from both parties, to hammer out a deal. On Tuesday morning, the Senate rejected that offer on a 54-to-46 party-line vote.
Senate Democrats have said they would set up a conference committee to negotiate a full-year budget — something they have been asking Republicans to do for months — but they would not do it for a short-term proposal under the threat of a government shutdown.
Later in the morning, House Republicans invited the media into a room overlooking the Mall, with its closed museums and monuments. Seven Republican congressmen sat on one side of a long table, the other half empty as they tried to draw attention to the Senate’s unwillingness to negotiate.
“The way to resolve our differences is to sit down and talk,” said House majority leader Eric Cantor. “And as you can see here, there’s no one here on the other side of the table.”
Several polls have shown that Americans are pinning blame for the shutdown on Republicans, which could create long-lasting damage to the party and its ability to win back control of the Senate in 2014.
Seventy-two percent of those surveyed oppose Congress shutting down the government to block implementation of Obama’s health care law, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released on Tuesday. The survey also found that 74 percent disapprove of the job Republicans in Congress are doing, the lowest score they’ve ever had. “Americans are certainly not in love with Obamacare, but they reject decisively the claim by congressional Republicans that it is so bad that it’s worth closing down the government to stop it,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The government shutdown began on a day that the health care law opened for enrollment.
As part of that rollout, Obama went to the White House Rose Garden to tout the law, and chide Congress for failing to avert the shutdown.
“My basic message to Congress is this: pass a budget, end the government shutdown,” Obama said in the Rose Garden. “We’re better than this. Certainly the American people are better than this.”
“Congress generally has to stop governing by crisis,” he added. “It is a drag on the economy. It is not worthy of this country.”
Somewhat lost amid the more imminent problems was that the funding bill at issue is set to last only until Nov. 15. There is also an impending debt limit crisis that could have a more far-reaching impact on the economy. If Congress does not raise the debt limit by Oct. 17, according to Treasury officials, the government will default on its loans.
Republicans have been hoping to also extract concessions by raising the debt limit, while Democrats say they won’t negotiate. Congress has already authorized the spending, they say, and it now needs to authorize a way to pay the bills.
But with each side dug in, there was little progress on any front. Several moderate Republicans were becoming more publicly critical of their Tea Party-backed colleagues, even though they hadn’t gained enough support within the House Republican caucus.
“They’re lemmings. They’re followers,” said Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican from California. “They’re just waiting for the next guy in front of the mic, the next guy up on TV — and they’re going to run out and follow him.”
“We have a responsibility to govern in this country, and we have a responsibility to make sure the government runs and functions properly,” he added. “And if you’re going to take these extreme measures, you’d better have a plan to win. And I don’t know that there’s a plan to win.”