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October 1, 2013

Government powers down: Obama to address nation

STILLWATER, Okla. — Congress plunged the nation into a partial government shutdown Tuesday, forcing some 800,000 federal workers off the job as a protracted dispute over President Barack Obama’s signature health care law reached the boiling point. Obama readied a midday statement to the nation while Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol blamed each other for the first shutdown in nearly two decades.

“Closed” signs and barricades sprang up early Tuesday at the Lincoln Memorial and other monuments, and the National Park Service was turning off 45 fountains around the capital city. National parks from Acadia in Maine to Denali in Alaska followed suit, as did many federal workplaces.

Agencies like NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency were virtually shuttered.

But people classified as essential government employees — such as air traffic controllers, Border Patrol agents and most food inspectors — continued to work. So did members of the military and employees whose jobs are financed through fees, such as State Department workers who issue passports and visas.

In a letter to federal workers, Obama lamented that they have become “punching bags” in a partisan fight.

With the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate at stalemate, it was unclear how long the shutdown would last, or whom the public would blame for unanswered phones and locked doors. Whether students shut out of Smithsonian museums or homebuyers wanting government-backed loans, some Americans already were filling the pinch and the effects were expected to spread.

The economic toll on a fragile economy was a worry, too. More than a third of the federal civilian workforce was furloughed — equivalent to the combined workforce of Target, General Motors, Exxon and Google — and many do jobs that private businesses rely on.

The Senate early Tuesday rejected the House’s call to form a negotiating committee to resolve the deadlock over health care and financing the government.

Moments after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., laid full blame on House Republicans, declaring, “The government is closed because of the irrationality of what’s going on on the other side of the Capitol.”

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