Federal Government Begins First Shutdown in 17 Years

Workers furloughed, blame game continues

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Brooks Kraft for TIME

Speaker of the House John Boehner on his way to a procedural vote on the House floor, at the Capitol in Washington, Sept. 30, 2013.

The gears of the federal government began grinding to a stop for the first time in 17 years on Tuesday, after Republicans and Democrats failed to break through Washington gridlock to keep the government running.

About 800,000 of the federal government’s 3.3 million workers will be furloughed without pay, and the cumulative effect could cost the still-fragile economy about $1 billion a week, CNN reports. National parks, many offices and the Library of Congress are closing, though military operations and other functions deemed “essential” will continue as usual. President Barack Obama and members of Congress, who couldn’t come to an agreement to avert the shutdown, will continue to get paid. Obama’s health care reform law, which Republicans, using the threat of a shutdown, had fought desperately to defund or delay, continues to go into effect with the opening of health insurance exchanges on Tuesday.

House Republicans had continued into Monday night their efforts to stop Obamacare. But the White House and Senate Democrats never blinked, saying it amounted to “extortion” for Republicans to use a government-funding bill to stop a law that was passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court.

“They’ve lost their minds,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said of Republicans.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, whose conservative caucus pushed him not to accept any government funding bill that didn’t make changes to the health care law, said he and and fellow Republicans didn’t want a government shutdown. But after the administration recently delayed an employer mandate that is part of the law, Republicans used their last attempt before a shutdown to delay the individual mandate that people buy insurance, which is at the heart of the law.

“We believe that we should fund the government, and we think there ought to be basic fairness for all Americans under Obamacare,” Boehner said.

The question now is how long a shutdown will last. Public opinion polls indicate Republicans will bear most of the blame for any economic impact. The previous shutdown in 1995 lasted 21 days, but some Republicans were predicting a quicker end.

“We can’t win,” Arizona Sen. John McCain said, according to the Associated Press.

In a video message to American troops Monday evening just before the shutdown, Obama ensured military personnel that they would still be paid. He had earlier signed a bill guaranteeing them pay in the event of a shutdown.

“If you’re serving in harms way, we’re going to make sure you have what you need to succeed in your missions,” Obama said.

Furloughed workers at various agencies were instructed not to check their email or phones during a shutdown, the AP reports. Some workers at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department, and the Housing and Urban Development Department are coming into work Tuesday morning to change voicemails and set up out-of-office emails, but most workers are expected to be gone by midday.

NASA will be almost completely shuttered except for Mission Control, and the Smithsonian and National Zoo will close. The FAA safety inspectors and National Transportation Safety Board employees will suffer drastic furloughs, and most of the workers helping to rebuild in Colorado after last month’s devastating floods will be eliminated.