WASHINGTON - Hours after the first government shutdown began, the Senate on Tuesday rejected the House's request to hold formal talks on a stopgap spending bill that would end the stalemate.
The 54-46 vote along party lines reflected the ongoing politics of the issue. All of the Senate's Democrats and the two independents who vote with them want a government funding bill with no restrictions, while Republicans want to affect President Obama's health care law.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., blamed the "irrationality" of Republicans in the House, and singled out a faction he calls "Tea Party radicals."
"No matter how many times they try to extort the American people and the Democrats here in the Senate, we're not going to re-litigate the health care issue," Reid said, noting the U.S. Supreme Court has already upheld the Affordable Care Act as constitutional.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats are at fault.
"Democratic leaders in Congress finally have their prize: A government shutdown that no one seems to want but them," McConnell said.
Shortly before midnight, Obama notified government agencies to prepare to cease operations Tuesday, even as House Republicans worked on a fourth and final attempt to again advance a plan to delay the individual mandate to buy health insurance exchanges that opened for enrollment Tuesday.
The House GOP moves came as a series of polls released Monday showed that they were bearing the bulk of the blame for the shutdown. One of their Senate colleagues, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican Party's 2008 presidential nominee, called their position doomed to eventual failure.
House Republicans voted largely along party lines early Tuesday to start formal negotiations - called a conference committee - with the Senate on the stopgap bill. It's an unusual request for a six-week spending bill that funds the government at current levels, but it provides Republicans a vehicle to keep the debate going.
"Under the Constitution there is a way to resolve this process and that is to go to conference and talk through your differences," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a short press conference after the shutdown began.
Reid again on Tuesday urged Boehner to allow a House vote on a Senate-passed bill to keep the government funded through Nov. 15, which does not include any provisions affecting the health care law.
Boehner refused. "That's not going to happen," he said.
Reid argued that Senate Democrats have tried for months to convene a conference committee to resolve differences on the budget, but not when House Republicans have the issue tied to the health care law. "We'd be happy to go to conference. Why wouldn't we ... hopefully that could lead to a long-term budget agreement," he said.
Obama took to his Twitter account to comment on the failure to fund the government. "They actually did it," he wrote. "A group of Republicans in the House just forced a government shutdown over Obamacare instead of passing a real budget."
In a day of legislative pingpong, the Senate voted twice Monday to reject House efforts to delay the individual mandate and repeal a 2.3% tax on medical devices enacted to help pay for the law. The House's proposal also would eliminate a proposed subsidy to members of Congress, their staffs, and members of the Obama administration to buy insurance in the new system.
Obama reiterated that he would not sign any bill that seeks to dismantle the health law. "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 refight the results of an election," Obama said at the White House.
The president did sign late Monday a bill that would pay members of the military during a shutdown.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Democrats would deliver most of their 200 votes if Boehner would agree to put the "clean" Senate bill on the floor. "I think it's very clear Democrats are making an explicit offer to the speaker to keep government open. Whatever he may bring out of his caucus to bring to the floor, we hope that he will also give a vote to the clean (funding bill)," Pelosi said.
The House provision on insurance subsidies was a reaction to an Office of Personnel Management decision to provide members of Congress and their staffs the same amount of money they get now as part of the federal employees insurance system to pay for policies they will now have to buy on local exchanges, which are state websites where people can shop for and buy insurance.
"There should be no special treatment for the well-connected under ObamaCare. Delaying the individual mandate and withdrawing special exemptions for Congress is the fair thing to do," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a statement.
Some of the health care law is already in place, including provisions that expand prescription-drug discounts and allow young people up to age 26 to remain on their parents' health insurance policies.The health marketplaces to help people buy insurance officially opened on Tuesday.
The standoff has energized Tea Party organizations, which have made dismantling the health care law a top priority and have exercised substantial influence over House Republicans elected with their help since 2010.
"What's happening in Washington right now is largely a result of the grass-roots speaking with one voice at the same time," said Dean Clancy, vice president of public policy for FreedomWorks, one of the leading Tea Party-affiliated groups. His group, which touts an e-mail list and social media following of more than 6 million, said it has driven more than 50,000 calls to Congress in recent weeks as part of the effort to defund the law.
"We are setting the agenda in Washington, and it feels good," he said.
On the eve of the shutdown, lawmakers were unsure how long it would last."I think the scary thing about this period we're in is that there's no clear end point to a shutdown," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
The last time the government shut down was in 1995-96 for a combined period of 28 days during budget standoffs between the Clinton administration and a Republican Congress. Most Americans would not feel the effects of a short-term shutdown because most essential government operations would continue, but a longer-term shutdown could negatively affect the economy and federal workers and inconvenience Americans in need of government services.