The US government yesterday began a partial shutdown for the first time in 17 years, potentially putting up to 1 million workers on unpaid leave, closing national parks and stalling medical research projects.
Federal agencies were directed to cut back services after lawmakers could not break a political stalemate that sparked new questions about the ability of a deeply divided Congress to perform its most basic functions.
After House of Representatives Republicans floated a late offer to break the logjam, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rejected the idea, saying Democrats would not enter into formal negotiations on spending “with a gun to our head” in the form of government shutdowns.
In the hours leading up to the deadline, the Democratic-controlled Senate repeatedly stripped measures passed by the House that tied temporary funding for government operations to delaying or scaling back the Affordable Care Act healthcare overhaul known as Obamacare.
Shortly after midnight on Monday, US President Barack Obama tweeted: “The Affordable Care Act is moving forward. You can’t shut it down.”
The political dysfunction at the Capitol also raised fresh concerns about whether Congress can meet a crucial deadline in the middle of this month to raise the government’s US$16.7 trillion debt ceiling.
After missing the midnight deadline to avert the shutdown, Republicans and Democrats in the House continued a bitter blame game, each side shifting responsibility to the other in efforts to redirect a possible public backlash.
If Congress can agree to a new funding bill soon, the shutdown would last days rather than weeks, but no signs emerged of a strategy to bring the parties together.
With an eye on next year’s congressional elections, both parties tried to deflect responsibility for the shutdown. Obama accused Republicans of being too beholden to Tea Party conservatives in the House and said the shutdown might threaten the economic recovery.
The political stakes are particularly high for Republicans, who are trying to regain control of the Senate next year. Polls show they are more likely to be blamed for the shutdown, as they were during the last one in 1996.
“Somebody is going to win, and somebody is going to lose,” Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown said. “Going in, Obama and the Democrats have a little edge.”
The shutdown, the culmination of three years of divided government and growing political polarization, was spearheaded by Republican Tea Party conservatives united in their opposition to Obama, their distaste for the president’s healthcare law and their campaign pledges to rein in government spending.
Obama refused to negotiate over the demands and warned a shutdown could “throw a wrench into the gears of our economy.”
Some government offices and national parks will be shuttered, but spending related to national security and public safety will continue.
In Taipei, American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) spokesperson Mark Zimmer said the shutdown would not effect AIT in the near term because it has the resources to continue operations for a while.
Additional reporting by Shih Hsiu-chuan
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