Capitol building eerily quiet as government shutdown nears

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With a midnight deadline today to avert a federal government shutdown fast approaching, the US Capitol building was eerily quiet yesterday, with meeting rooms locked, lawmakers not to be found, and both parties waiting for the other to blink.

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

After spending Saturday locked in bitter debate amid partisan chants by Republicans, the House also voted to repeal a medical device tax that would generate about $30 billion over 10 years to help fund the healthcare programme. That 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 US soldiers in the event the government runs out of money Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

As government agencies edged 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 US economy and send shockwaves around the globe.

When the Senate next convenes at 2 pm today, it will manoeuvre 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 Nov. 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 yesterday.

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.

There were no outward signs from members of Congress nor the White House of any last-minute negotiations to resolve the standoff. Instead, both Democrats and Republicans spent their energies trying to pin blame on the other side for failing to avoid a calamity.

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,” he said in a statement.

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer shot back that the Republican tactics were a “subterfuge” to avoid blame for a shutdown. “So instead of continued game-playing, we urge Speaker Boehner to reconvene the House, pass a clean CR and move on,” he said in a statement.

If the Senate holds firm and sends back the same measure devoid of the Obamacare delay, House Republicans will simply return it with other changes to the healthcare law, said Representative Kevin McCarthy, the third-ranking House Republican.

“It will be additions that Senate Democrats said they can support,” McCarthy told “Fox News Sunday,” without specifying these “other options.”

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