Federal government shuts down for the first time in 17 years as Congress continues to debate

A government shutdown looms on the horizon if Congress cannot negotiate a budget bill by 01 October 2013. A file picture dated 01 March 2013 shows a longtime exposure image of clouds moving above the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

The federal government officially shut down for the first time in 17 years at midnight on Monday, after House Republicans refused to drop demands that parts of the Affordable Care Act be delayed in return for approval of a mandatory government funding bill.

Federal employees who are considered essential to public safety will be expected to work this week. But most federal offices will be closed until Congress reaches a deal. The shutdown is the first one of its kind since 1996, when the government closed for 26 days under President Bill Clinton.

Despite missing the deadline, debate persisted in the House and Senate early into the morning. The House is still planning to request to establish a conference committee with the Senate, but Senate Democratic leaders preemptively rejected the offer Monday night, saying they would not negotiate until the House had passed a bill to fund the government for six weeks without any extra provisions.

The Senate will likely respond by tabling the offer, which will take the federal government into a partial shutdown scenario beginning Tuesday morning.

House Republican leaders intend to request a conference committee from Senate Democrats to resolve differences on a bill to fund the government. But earlier Monday, Senate Democrats announced they would reject a House request for a conference committee to find a solution to budget woes.

"Republicans are still playing games," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat of Nevada said on the House floor.

Appointing a conference committee would not have averted a government shutdown before the Monday night deadline when government funding levels expire, but it could have put the battling parties in a position to reach an agreement to fund the government faster than the game of legislative ping pong House Republicans played with Senate Democrats on the final day before the shutdown deadline.

Over the past week, the Senate rejected the third proposal from the House to keep the government open while also attacking Obamacare — most recently by delaying the individual mandate to buy health insurance and by prohibiting congressional staff members from federal insurance subsidies under the controversial health care program.

As time grew short, President Barack Obama signed last-minute legislation to ensure that members of the military and personnel at the Department of Homeland Security get paid even in the event of a shutdown. And aides scoffed at the conference request as a desperate gambit ensuring that government will turn out the lights at midnight.

Obama, after stepping before cameras to urge an end to the standoff, reached out by telephone to Republican House Speaker John Boehner, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellbut there was no breakthrough, a White House official said.

As a result of Republicans refusing to hold a budget conference to set spending levels for the year, Congress is funding the government with short-term, stop-gap "continuing resolutions" that must be approved when old ones expire. The deadline for approving a new one is midnight Monday.

Earlier this month, House Republicans passed their first version of a spending bill but added a controversial amendment that would defund Obamacare. After a lengthy debate over the bill in the Democrat-controlled Senate, which included a 21-hour protest speech from Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, the upper chamber rejected the House bill and returned its version with the Obamacare funding reinserted.

Senate Democratic leaders warned that they would accept nothing short of a “clean” continuation of funding — one without riders such as defunding Obamacare — a move that practically dared Republicans to blink.

House Republicans only dug in their heels deeper. Over the weekend, they approved another bill, one that would delay Obamacare for a year and permanently abolish a tax on medical devices, and the Senate rejected it Monday.

Boehner, Republican of Ohio, chided Senate Democrats Monday for waiting until the day before a shutdown to act and reiterated the House’s intention to use the shutdown battle as a vessel to cripple the health care law.

"This law is not ready for prime time. The House has done its work,” Boehner said on the House floor. “It's time for the Senate to listen to the American people just like the House has listened to the American people and pass a one-year delay of Obamacare."

Obama, who has vowed to veto any spending bill that tampers with the Affordable Care Act, said Monday that he was not "resigned" to a shutdown.

“I suspect I will be speaking to the leaders today, tomorrow and the next day," Obama said.

Before the House chose to attack Obamacare using the mandatory spending bill, House Republicans had planned instead to use an upcoming vote to raise the federal government’s debt limit as the vehicle for delaying the law. However, with support from Cruz and his allies in the Senate, House conservatives demanded action immediately. Boehner relented, Democrats refused to budge and the federal government shut down.