A sign indicates the House dining room is closed at the US Capitol yesterday in Washington, D
WASHINGTON: Monuments closed, offices fell silent and 800,000 public servants were told to stay at home yesterday as Washington’s perennial political crisis forced the first government shutdown in 17 years.
The effects of the budget battle ranged from the poignant to the symbolic. A social programme that provides food to poor women and children was hit and the Statue of Liberty was closed to visitors.
Under the Capitol, where rival clans of lawmakers failed overnight to find an eleventh-hour deal to pass a federal budget, the National Mall was sealed off by a sign marked “area closed.”
Prospects of a swift resolution to the crisis were unclear and economists warned that the struggling US economic recovery could suffer if the shutdown drags on for more than just a few days.
In a zero sum battle typical of the divided US political system, Republicans tied new government funding to attempts to delay or dismantle President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform.
Each time, their effort was killed by Obama’s allies in the Democrat-led Senate, leaving the government in limbo when its money ran out at the end of the fiscal year at midnight on Monday.
“This is an unnecessary blow to America,” a somber Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate.
Some federal agencies deemed non-essential were all but closed. Some 97 percent of Nasa’s staff were sent home, although those supporting the crew of the International Space Station were kept on.
Other bodies seen as doing urgent work, like the military and border patrol were kept at full strength, but the Pentagon was due to stand down almost half of its 800,000 civilian employees.
A majority of voters agreed. A Quinnipiac University poll said they oppose the shutdown of the government as a way to derail Obamacare by a margin of 72 percent to 22 percent.
While Obama supporters blamed the deadlock on a relatively small faction of “Tea Party” conservatives in the Republican-led House of Representatives, Congress as a whole has lost prestige.
“House of Turds,” headlined the New York Daily News above a parody picture of House Speaker John Boehner as the corrupt anti-hero of Washington television drama “House of Cards.”
“DC cess-pols shut down government. They get paid while nation suffers,” it trumpeted.
Social media sites such as Twitter lit up with popular derision.
More than 13,000 people mockingly retweeted a message from the US Capitol, the seat of Congress: “Due to a lapse in government funding, this account will not be active until further notice.”
A few hours into the shutdown, Republicans in the House appointed delegates, or conferees, to negotiate with the Senate later on a spending plan to get the government up and running again.
But if they still want to tinker with Obamacare, the Senate will not negotiate, an aide to Reid said.
Obama, heralding the first government shutdown since 1996, told US troops in a video message that they deserved better from Congress, and promised to reopen the government soon. Obama earlier accused Republicans of holding America for ransom with their “extreme” political demands, while his opponents struck back at his party’s supposed arrogance.
Republicans accuse Obama of refusing to negotiate in good faith, but the White House says Obamacare is the law and there is no way to stop it from going into force and providing affordable health care.
The crisis is rooted in the Tea Party campaign to overturn Obamacare, the president’s principal domestic political achievement, key portions of which came into force yesterday.
More broadly, the shutdown is the most serious crisis yet in a series of rolling ideological skirmishes between Democrat Obama and House Republicans over the scope of the US government.
“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 re-fight the results of an election,” Obama said.
Obama warned that a government shutdown could badly damage an economy which has endured a sluggish recovery from the worst recession in decades.
Consultants Macroeconomic Advisors said it would slow growth, recorded at a 2.5 percent annual pace in the second quarter.
A two-week shutdown would cut 0.3 percentage point off of gross domestic production.
Republicans are also demanding Obama make concessions in the health care law to secure a lifting of the current $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, without which the US would begin to default on its debts for the first time in history by the middle of October.