Obama urges Republicans to back down as shutdown set to enter second day
The political deadlock that forced the closure large portions of the US government on Tuesday, bringing financial uncertainty to hundreds of thousands of federal workers, appeared likely to enter a second day without a resolution.
As national landmarks were barricaded, museums closed, and hundreds of thousands of employers were placed on indefinite leave, Barack Obama called on Republicans to back down over their opposition to his healthcare reforms rather than “hold the entire economy hostage”.
Striking a defiant tone in the Rose Garden of the White House – one of the many government offices operating on a slimmed-down staff – Obama declared that the Affordable Care Act was “here to stay”. Flanked by citizens who will benefit from the reforms, whose central provisions came into force on Tuesday, Obama said: “They’ve shut down the government over an ideological crusade to deny affordable health insurance to millions of Americans.”
The Republican leader of the House, John Boehner, focused on the refusal by Obama and senior Democrats to negotiate.
“The president isn’t telling the whole story when it comes to the government shutdown. The fact is that Washington Democrats have slammed the door on reopening the government by refusing to engage in bipartisan talks,” he said.
Federal agencies affected by the shutdown began the process of closing their doors on Tuesday, hours after Congress failed to pass a budget resolution that would have ensured their continued funding.
Hardline Republicans in the House of Representatives repeatedly refused to back down from their insistence that a deal over the federal budget should be linked to various measures that would unpick the Affordable Care Act, a law that has passed both houses of Congress, survived a presidential election and that has been upheld as constitutional by a conservative supreme court.
Outside the halls of power, the impact of the shutdown was visible across Washington. Shortly after 11am, thousands of federal employees poured out of government buildings after working the maximum-permitted four hours. Many had spent the morning turning on out-of-office alerts on their emails and closing down their offices.
Meanwhile, bemused-looking tourists were unable to access any of Washington’s major museum and turned back from the monuments that stretch across the National Mall, large parts of which were barricaded. The lights were off at the Lincoln memorial, where the huge edifice of the beloved 16th president sat in the shadows.
It was a similar story around the US: in New York, the Statue of Liberty was closed to visitors, as were the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks. Campers and hikers were given two days to pack up and leave.
The tax-collection agency, the Internal Revenue Service, suspended audits. Most of the staff at Nasa were furloughed, save for essential staff at Mission Control in Houston. The National Institutes of Health said that it would have to turn down an estimated 200 patients a week, 30 of them children, who applied to enrol in its clinical trials.
The most politically embarrassing moment for Congress came when a group of veterans in effect forced their way into a Washington war memorial closed by the shutdown.
But on Capitol Hill, there were few signs of a resolution, with the Republican-dominated House insisting on using the budget to impede the healthcare law, and Democrats in the Senate refusing to be strong-armed into a negotiations.
Both sides blamed each other for the shutdown, although some fissures were appearing on the Republican side, particularly in the Senate. Polls suggested that the public held Republicans most responsible for a shutdown that could drag on for days or weeks.
Ominously, one senior House Republican hinted at a battle that could last weeks and incorporate a looming crisis over the debt ceiling, which could trigger a US default if it is not raised with congressional approval before 17 October.
“We think the debt limit is the forcing mechanism,” Paul Ryan told reporters. “That’s what we think will bring the two parties together.”
In the latest salvo, House Republicans proposed measures that would involve piecemeal funding bills designed to mitigate a few of the more high-profile aspects of the shutdown that are proving most damaging in terms of public relations.
The bills, which would release national parks and veterans services from the shutdown, and could help fund basic services Washington, DC, was scheduled for a vote on Wednesday night. Serving military personnel have already been exempted from the shutdown after a rare agreement between the House and Senate over the weekend.
The White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed a piecemeal approach on government funding as “not serious.” He said: “If we want to open the government, they should open the government.”
However, even if the House and Senate agree to find short-term solutions to diminish the more prominent impacts of the shutdown, the consequences for the vast apparatus of the federal government would remain.
Although it had been brewing for some weeks, the first US government shutdown since 1996 appeared to take many in Washington by surprise, with several furloughed federal workers saying they never thought Republicans would actually see through their threat.
The impact of the shutdown on Tuesday were as varied as they were surreal. Children’s playgrounds around Capitol Hill were closed, restaurants that serve government workers shuttered, and some government websites and Twitter feeds suddenly became inactive. There were crowds of furloughed federal workers outside nearly every government building; some emerged clutching pot plants, unaware how long they would be locked out.
The scene that unfolded outside the Department of Labor headquarters was repeated across the city, in which the government is by far the largest employer. Inside, two Labor Department chiefs – David Michaels, an assistant secretary, and his deputy, Jordan Barab – had just finished visiting every single office to speak personally with staff. Barab did so despite being on crutches.
“There was no sense when we might come back,” said Lisa Long, 45, a safety engineer. “People were demoralised and maybe even a little shocked that it was actually happening.”
Employees in the Labor building include some well-paid senior officials, but others on annual salaries as low as $25,000. “These people need paychecks, they gotta eat,” said Monique Tribbett, a 45-year-old IT contractor.
“I’m trying to get people to protest. Not just people in the department but, you know, all these other people who are affected. If we all went, right now, to the steps of the Capitol Building and protested, then they might start listening to us. But people don’t wanna stand together. I feel like I’m on my own.”