WASHINGTON — Washington began bracing for a prolonged government shutdown on Tuesday, with House Republicans continuing to demand that the nation’s new health-care law be delayed or repealed and President Obama and the Democrats refusing to give in.
There were signs on Capitol Hill that Republicans — knowing that blame almost certainly will fall most heavily on them — are beginning to look for ways to lift some of the pressure.
House GOP leaders pushed a new approach to end the impasse, offering to fund some parts of the government — including national parks, veterans benefits, and the District of Columbia government. The goal was to put Democrats on the spot by trying to make them vote against programs that are popular among their constituents.
Senate Democratic leaders and the White House quickly rejected the piecemeal strategy. And in a series of evening votes, Democrats helped defeat the measures on the House floor.
Mr. Obama made his second appearance in as many days to call on Republicans to fund the government. He was flanked in the White House Rose Garden by about a dozen uninsured people who will be eligible for benefits under the Affordable Care Act, which took effect Tuesday. The legislation, often derided by critics as “Obamacare,” remains unpopular, but polls suggest that the idea of closing the government to stop it is even more so.
“This shutdown is not about deficits. It’s not about budgets,” Mr. Obama said. “This shutdown is about rolling back our efforts to provide health insurance to folks who don’t have it. This, more than anything else, seems to be what the Republican Party stands for these days. I know it’s strange that one party would make keeping people uninsured the centerpiece of their agenda, but that apparently is what it is.”
Neither side is feeling a clear imperative to end the shutdown.
Republican leaders prefer keeping the government closed to compromising on health care. And, with polls showing that voters overwhelmingly blame Republicans for the stalemate, Democrats too are willing to let it drag on.
Unlike most GOP House members, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma lived through the prolonged shutdowns of 1995 and early 1996.
Although the ardently conservative Mr. Coburn sympathizes with the more junior lawmakers’ strong opposition to the health-care law, he says their shutdown strategy will end badly for Republicans.
At least 12 House Republicans say they would vote in favor of a “clean” spending bill — one that simply keeps the government open for two more months, without any language about defunding or delaying the health-care law — but it is also well short of the number that would be needed to persuade the speaker to bring such a bill to the floor.
If the shutdown lasts a couple of weeks — a prospect that looks possible — it will take lawmakers right into a bigger crisis: the expiration of federal borrowing authority. Republicans are hoping to use that deadline to gain concessions from Mr. Obama, who has said repeatedly that he will not negotiate over the nation’s solvency.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said he will begin running short of cash to pay the nation’s bills unless Congress acts by Oct. 17. That would raise the virtually unthinkable prospect of a default on U.S. debt.
The first partial closure of the government in nearly 18 years began Tuesday morning, when the fiscal year ended, forcing 800,000 federal employees out of work indefinitely and closing federal offices and services not deemed vital.
A reopening of some federal agencies had been proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Tea Party champion who has become the de facto leader of the Republicans who are most committed to the shutdown strategy.
“We ought to fund the Border Patrol agents today. We ought to do it in a bipartisan manner,” he said. “Yesterday, we saw the process work when the Senate unanimously passed the bill the House had passed already to provide that the men and women of the military will be funded. I think that is absolutely the way to go.”
Senate Democratic leaders dismissed the proposal.
“Senator Ted Cruz is now going to pick his favorite federal agencies to reopen? Come on. Let’s get serious about this,” said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the majority whip. “We’ve got an important responsibility with government at many different levels.”
The plan also did not receive any support from the White House.
“These piecemeal efforts are not serious, and they are no way to run a government,” presidential spokesman Amy Brundage said. “If House Republicans are legitimately concerned about the impacts of a shutdown — which extend across government from our small businesses to women, children, and seniors — they should do their job and pass a clean [spending bill] to reopen the government.”