U.S. Capitol building eerily quiet as government shutdown nears

WASHINGTON Sun Sep 29, 2013 11:38pm IST

The U.S. House of Representatives remains fully lit during a rare late-night Saturday session at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, September 28, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The U.S. House of Representatives remains fully lit during a rare late-night Saturday session at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, September 28, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With just a day to go before a midnight Monday deadline to avoid a federal government shutdown, the U.S. Capitol building was eerily quiet on Sunday, with meeting rooms locked and no lawmakers to be found inside.

Senate Democrats decided on Sunday not to take up a measure approved in the early hours of the morning by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives that ties funding governmental agencies with a one-year delay of President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare law.

After a day of bitter debate and finger-pointing, Republicans in the House also voted to repeal a medical device tax that would generate about $30 billion over 10 years to help fund the healthcare program. The measure attracted some Democratic support.

And in a sign that lawmakers might be resigned to a shutdown, the House unanimously approved a bill to keep paying U.S. soldiers in the event the government runs out of money October 1, the start of the new fiscal year, to run many programs.

As government agencies edge toward closing their doors, the standoff is a harbinger of the next big political battle: a far-more consequential bill to raise the federal government's borrowing authority. Failure to raise the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling by mid-October would force the United States to default on some payment obligations - an event that could cripple the U.S. economy and send shockwaves around the globe.

When the Senate next convenes at 2 p.m. on Monday, it will maneuver to strip out the amendments to delay "Obamacare" from the House bill and send back a "clean" funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, that won Senate approval last week. That bill keeps the government funded through November 15.

"There is no ping-pong. House Republicans just need to decide whether to pass our clean CR or shut the government down," said a senior Senate Democratic aide on Sunday.

And yet, neither side wants to be the last to cast the final vote that would lead to a shutdown, a concern that has turned the funding measure into a hot potato tossed between the two chambers. Polls consistently show the American public is tired of political showdowns and opposed to a shutdown.

House Speaker John Boehner accused the Senate of shirking its responsibilities by taking Sunday off, claiming that Americans want neither a government shutdown nor the president's healthcare law to go into effect.

"If the Senate stalls until Monday afternoon instead of working today, it would be an act of breathtaking arrogance by the Senate Democratic leadership," Boehner said in a statement.

On Sunday morning TV talk shows, representatives of the two parties tried to pin blame on the other side for failing to avoid a calamity.

Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Whip, told the "Fox New Sunday" program that the House simply will not pass a "clean" funding bill on Monday and will continue to try to modify Obamacare by adding new provisions to any measure the Senate passes.

"It will be additions that Senate Democrats said they can support," McCarthy said, without specifying these "other options" to rein in the healthcare reform law.

VETO THREAT

Obama has threatened to veto any bill that delays his healthcare program.

The funding impasse is the culmination of more than three years of failed conservative efforts to repeal Obamacare, a program aimed at extending health insurance to millions of those without coverage.

Republicans argue that Obamacare, key parts of which are set to launch on October 1, is a massive and unnecessary government intrusion into medicine that will cause premiums to skyrocket and damage the economy.

And if the battle over Obamacare pushes up to the mid-October deadline to raise the debt ceiling, U.S. stocks may suffer. When gridlock threatened a debt default in 2011, the Dow Jones industrials fell about 2,100 points from July 21 to August 9, with the market needing two more months to regain its footing.

Under a government shutdown, more than a million federal employees would be furloughed from their jobs, with the impact depending on the duration of a shutdown.

The current timetable could leave Boehner with the most difficult decision of his career: whether to approve a clean continuing resolution the Senate will likely send it Monday afternoon or allow the government to shut down for the first time since late 1995.

In a government shutdown, spending for functions considered essential, related to national security or public safety, would continue along with benefit programs such as Medicare health insurance and Social Security retirement benefits for seniors.

But civilian federal employees - from people who process forms and handle regulatory matters to workers at national parks and museums in Washington - would be temporarily out of work.

The last government shutdown ran from December 16, 1995, to January 6, 1996, and was the product of a budget battle between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republicans, led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Republicans suffered a public backlash when voters re-elected Clinton in a landslide the following November, a lesson never forgotten by senior Republicans, including Boehner.

(Additional reporting by Philip Barbara and Bill Trott; Writing by David Lawder. Editing by Fred Barbash and Philip Barbara)

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