A passenger plane flies over Washington's darkening skies hours before the government shutdown takes effect. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)
The clock ran out at midnight Monday on halfhearted efforts in Congress to avoid a partial shutdown of the federal government.
No real negotiations occurred in the waning hours as the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate remained too far apart to pass funding for the fiscal year that began as the calendar changed to Oct. 1.
House Republicans insisted on using the bill to put chinks in the Affordable Care Act health care reform law enacted 3½ years ago that is just now starting to take full effect. Senate Democrats and the White House insisted on a short-term appropriations bill without any controversial riders. They traded versions of a short-term spending bill but remained miles apart.
The inability to reach agreement leads to a situation where, short of some early Tuesday budgetary miracle, federal workers will report to work Tuesday but many civilians will quickly be going home.
The Defense Department is exempt from full effects of a shutdown. Members of the armed forces, including the Coast Guard, will report to work as usual, but about half of DoD civilian employees and many contractors will be sent home until funding is restored.
Just before the shutdown took effect, President Obama signed into law the Pay Our Military Act that guarantees service members will be paid on time during a shutdown. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, said the military pay protection law “prevents a travesty” of service members serving in Afghanistan while only receiving IOUs but that is just one travesty avoided. He noted the Defense Department has warned it will not be able to pay death benefits for any active-duty deaths that occur beginning Oct. 1 until government funding is restored.
Full shutdown details have not been announced, but Pentagon officials warned that stateside commissaries could be closed, maintenance deferred on equipment and facilities, and training claims and temporary duty orders revoked.
Additionally, the Pentagon will be prevented from signing new contracts for weapons and services, and can only continue to pay contracts funded by pre-2014 appropriations.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said a “large number” of civilians are likely to be temporarily furloughed. In a DoD-wide message, he said who is working and who is furlough is a decision “dictated solely by the law, which only permits us to direct civilians to work if they are required to continue supporting military operations or if they are required to protect DoD personnel and property.”
“The furloughs are in no way a reflection of the importance of your work, the hard effort you put forth every day, or your dedicated service to our department and our nation,” he said, acknowledging that a shutdown another blow to the military that already had furloughs caused by sequestration. “This has been a trying period for DoD personnel across the globe. This is an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction from our mission of defending the nation.”
VA hospitals, clinics and mental health counseling are not affected by the shutdown and, for at least a short time, benefits checks will continue to be paid.
However, VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillion said a shutdown will slow the processing of veterans claims, and that mandatory overtime that has been used since April to dramatically reduce the number of claims pending for longer than one year will have to be stopped.
“In the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs will be suspended when funds are exhausted,” she said. At veterans’ cemeteries, “interments will continue, but may be on a reduced schedule,” Dillion said.
It remains unclear how to get government funding restored.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., one of the leading opponents of Obamacare who advocates using the government funding bill as a vehicle for stopping it, said vital government programs could be restarted. He suggested an unprecedented option of passing short-term spending bills for specific programs where there is bipartisan support, such as the Veterans Affairs Department and federal law enforcement programs.
Obama blamed Congress for shirking its responsibility to pass a budget and detailed some of the pain, like shutting down most of NASA, national monuments and social programs aimed at veterans, seniors, women and children.
“All of this is entirely preventable,” Obama said. “Keeping the people’s government open is not a concession to me. Keeping vital services running and hundreds of thousands of Americans on the job is not something you give to the other side. It’s our basic responsibility.”
Republicans blamed Obama for not negotiating with them about health care reform. Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., a retired Marine Corps colonel, complained the White House and Senate had been “foot-dragging.”
“As a member of Congress who wants to get things done, it is frustrating to see this game of Russian roulette play out,” Cook said. “We should pass a short-term continuing resolution until we can reach a longer-term deal.”