No progress toward deal on shutdown

Lawmakers in Congress made no progress Tuesday on ending the budget impasse that has thrown federal agencies in Maryland and elsewhere into the first government shutdown since 1996.

There was little indication that either side was prepared to negotiate, as Republicans continued to demand changes to President Barack Obama's health care law in exchange for spending legislation, and Democrats insisted that the issue had already been litigated — and they won.

Obama, using some of his sharpest language so far on the budget showdown, said legislation to reopen the government would not be achieved until Republicans in the House of Representatives stopped holding "the entire economy hostage" over what he described as ideological demands.

"They've shut down the government over an ideological crusade to deny affordable health insurance to millions of Americans," the president said during a Rose Garden address Tuesday. "In other words, they demanded ransom just for doing their job."

Republicans, meanwhile, opened a new political front by proposing legislation in the House that would fund federal parks, the Department of Veterans Affairs and city government in Washington. The effort failed to clear procedural votes on Tuesday.

"Democratic leaders in Congress finally have their prize: a government shutdown that no one seems to want but them," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. "They seem completely opposed to negotiation or compromise on a law that's killing jobs … they don't even want to talk about it."

Democrats dismissed the piecemeal approach to funding government operations. "As long as every agency has a problem, every agency needs a solution," Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in an interview. "I don't know what they're doing. You can't negotiate with a gun to your head."

Economists predict the shutdown could have a particularly harmful effect in Maryland and Virginia because of the high concentration of federal employees and contractors in each state. Maryland is home to some 300,000 federal workers, who make up about 10 percent of its civilian workforce.

But it's not clear precisely how many Marylanders were furloughed. Agencies based in the state, including the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, have said they sent tens of thousands of workers home nationwide. They have not provided state-level data.

A Social Security spokesman said Tuesday that about 4,300 of the18,000 it furloughed are at the agency's Woodlawn headquarters.

Several lawmakers indicated the current fight over government funding is setting the stage for the looming battle over raising the nation's debt ceiling — at least politically. Neither side wants to appear weak in the face of a showdown that economists say could have ramifications for the global economy.

The nation is expected to hit the $14.6 trillion debt ceiling in mid-October.

Maryland and Virginia lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — began pressing for legislation Tuesday to ensure furloughed employees would receive retroactive pay when the shutdown ends. That has happened in past shutdowns, including in 1995 and 1996, but it's not clear whether such a measure would pass in the current Congress.

"Our federal employees in many instances have one foot on a banana peel and one in the unemployment line," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and co-sponsor of the retroactive pay bill. "Now, they get another kick in the butt."

House Republicans have sent a series of proposals across the Capitol to the Senate, where they have died in rapid succession. With each new stymied effort, GOP leaders argue more aggressively that Democrats are refusing to negotiate on Obamacare.

Democrats, including the president, point out that the health care law was approved by Congress three years ago, and they say it was affirmed by voters when they re-elected Obama in 2012.

Republicans have been pressing for a provision that would strip premium reimbursements for lawmakers and their aides, who are now required to buy coverage through health insurance exchanges created under the law. Republicans have cast the demand as a matter of fairness because, they argue, other middle-class families will not receive those reimbursements.

"While the House waits for the Senate and president to agree to start the negotiations necessary to end the partial shutdown, the House will continue to attempt to end the special treatment of big businesses and members of Congress and their staff under Obamacare," said Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Washington.

But the provision is unlikely to gain much public attention because it wouldn't affect the majority of Americans. For starters, most people will not get coverage through the exchanges. Many who do will be eligible for subsidies. Legislative aides and members of Congress have long had premium costs subsidized by the government in the same way that private companies contribute to the cost of their employees' policies.

The political back-and-forth continued as lawmakers sent many of their own staff home. Cardin, who is leading the Senate effort on retroactive pay for federal employees, furloughed two-thirds of his workers, for instance.

A handful of centrist Republicans have publicly called on House leaders to pass a short-term spending bill free of policy provisions to restart government operations. But it's not clear whether the faction is close to the 17 GOP votes that would be needed to undercut the rest of the caucus.

Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who led an unsuccessful revolt to derail one of his party's spending bills, emerged from a meeting with fellow Republicans on Tuesday noting that leaders are not discussing a "clean" spending bill behind close doors at this point.

Asked if his constituents are angry at the GOP approach, King shrugged and said they were no angrier than they were the day before.

"They think we're crazy," he said.

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