Looming government shutdown

Night falls over the U.S. Capitol Dome, as members of the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives deal with a budget showdown with the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate, and a possible government shutdown in Washington, September 30, 2013. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters / October 1, 2013)

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.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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