By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun
12:40 AM EDT, October 1, 2013
Lawmakers in Congress failed to settle on legislation Monday to end the latest budget showdown, forcing federal agencies to begin shutting down services for the first time in 17 years.
The Republican-led House and Democratic Senate majority, unable to bridge a political divide that has stymied agreement for the better part of three years, traded a series of votes on proposals that stood no chance in the other chamber, pressing the government to begin shutting down at midnight Monday.
While hope for a last-minute deal to extend Monday night's deadline faded, members of both parties sharpened their rhetoric in an attempt to saddle the other side with the blame if they failed.
Democrats blamed tea party Republicans in the House. The conservative bloc has insisted that any spending bill include language to defund or delay Obamacare.
"Republicans are still playing games," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said on the Senate floor. "They want to close government."
Republicans insisted they did not want to shut down the government but said their fight over the Affordable Care Act was worth having. They criticized President Barack Obama and Democrats in the Senate for choosing not to negotiate over any legislation that included provisions to undercut Obamacare.
"The American people are speaking loudly, and House Republicans are listening," said Rep. Pete Sessions, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Rules Committee. "That is why we voted again tonight to prevent a government shutdown and protect Americans from the president's disastrous health care law."
Shortly before midnight, the Office of Management and Budget told agencies to execute shutdown plans.
Economists say the closure would have a particularly harmful impact in Maryland, where the federal government employs about 10 percent of the civilian workforce and where contractors received $27 billion in taxpayer business in the 2012 fiscal year.
State officials estimate Maryland would lose $15 million in economic activity during each day of a shutdown. But a George Mason University economist predicted that the Washington region alone — including the capital's suburbs in Maryland — could lose $200 million per day.
Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of the Sage Policy Group, said a $200 million daily impact is a reasonable projection.
"The impact is in the core of the Maryland economy," he said.
But the impact would be mitigated if a shutdown lasted only a few hours or days, analysts say. Basu said the region weathered the closures of 1995 and 1996, which together lasted 28 days, without significant long-term impact.
"There will be some hardship," Basu said, "but it's hard to know when you start to have really significant, permanent effects."
Legislative maneuvering on Capitol Hill late Monday capped a day of intense debate in which the GOP-led House passed a series of proposals that were easily defeated by the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Republicans approved a proposal Monday to fund the government in exchangefor delaying Obamacare's "individual mandate" — the requirement that every American obtain health insurance.
The proposal also included what amounted to a pay cut for members of Congress and their aides — stripping them of the share of their health insurance premiums currently paid for by the government.
The House approved the measure, 228-201. But the Senate effortlessly tabled the proposal on a 54-46 vote, putting the political onus back on the House with only hours to go before midnight.
House leaders then prepared to pass the same measure with an additional offer: to appoint members to a conference committee that would resolve differences between House- and Senate-passed bills. The move was intended to show that GOP leaders were prepared to negotiate but Democrats balked, saying there wasn't enough time to do so.
"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 from the White House earlier on Monday. "The American people sent us here to govern."
Maryland-based agencies announced last week that they would furlough tens of thousands of workers during a shutdown. They would include 74 percent of the workforce at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and 18,000 Social Security Administration workers nationwide.
Federal employees were told to show up for work Tuesday morning regardless of the outcome in Congress. If the government is shut down, those to be furloughed will receive formal notices. Employees deemed essential to protecting life and property would continue to work without pay.
The military will continue to report for duty, and Obama signed a House bill to ensure service members and the civilians and contractors who support them will continue to be paid.
Lawmakers spent much of the day trying to shift blame for the breakdown.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she was willing to negotiate with Republicans but would not capitulate on the health care law.
If the government shuts down, she said, it would be because "the House's viewpoint is 'my way or the highway.' "
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said neither party would emerge well from a shutdown. But he predicted it would look worse for the GOP.
"I do think for people who are really focused on the facts here, it's pretty clear that this whole episode is being driven by the hard-right, extreme tea party elements of the Republican Party," he said.
Republicans said their demands are reasonable. They noted that the Obama administration had already delayed key provisions of the health care law — including a requirement that large corporations provide coverage — and said that doing the same for individuals was only fair.
"Americans are going to have to decide if those are reasonable requests we made," said Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, the state's only Republican in Congress.
An estimated 180,000 Marylanders are expected to enroll in health coverage through a new insurance marketplace created under the law. That marketplace will open for business Tuesday.
Some Republicans have been critical of the House strategy, too. A group of centrist and conservative Republicans in the House mounted an effort late Monday to buck leadership on a procedural vote.
But that effort garnered only about a dozen votes.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the GOP presidential nominee in 2008, said his fellow Republicans' attempt to use the spending fight as leverage on Obamacare "defies what the popular will is."
So when would lawmakers begin moving away from the budget brinkmanship that has defined Congress for the past several years?
"When the people of this country stop it," McCain said.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun