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WASHINGTON – Hailing it as a “historic day,” President Obama pressed forward his flagship health care program today, inaugurating new insurance exchanges to expand access for those without coverage despite the shutdown taking hold across much of the government.

Obama said the opportunity to access affordable insurance is life-changing for those who could not before the launch of the exchanges, which were getting commencing a six-month enrollment period starting today. As a sign of how eager Americans were to get started, Obama said more than 1 million people had signed on to the system before 7 a.m. – in some cases, overloading the computer systems.

“This is life-or-death stuff,” Obama said in a Rose Garden appearance, adding that tens of thousands of Americans die each year for lack of health insurance, and others go bankrupt. “Today we begin to free millions of our fellow Americans from that fear.”

Standing with a group of people planning to sign up for the program, Obama urged Americans to call in or go online, touting a system that he said will offer more choices, more competition and lower prices.

The exchanges were just getting underway as most of federal government operations were shutting down, left unfunded by a Congress still bitterly divided about whether to discard Obama’s health care law altogether.

Obama’s other message to Americans: The health care exchanges will not be shutting down. That’s because funding for the Affordable Care Act, like other “mandatory” functions such as Social Security, air traffic control and national defense, is protected from the whims of Congress.

At the heart of the disagreement over a temporary measure to fund the government was whether Obama’s health care law should be allowed to go into effect as written. House Republicans, cheered on by tea party-backed GOP lawmakers in the Senate, sought to defund or delay parts of the health care program, arguing that once Americans started enrolling in the exchanges, the law authorizing the program becomes harder to repeal.

In addition to his own appearance, Obama will deploy top deputies to spread the message of newly-available health care coverage, the White House said.

Vice President Biden will appear on college radio stations. First lady Michelle Obama is publishing an editorial on a women’s lifestyle website. And senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett and other officials will be guests on African-American radio shows.

Obama told federal workers he hopes Washington quickly resolves the government shutdown that has forced many out the door.

In a letter emailed to federal employees, Obama says the shutdown was “completely preventable.” And he calls on the House of Representatives to pass a law reopening the government and giving workers back pay.

The president also lamented that government employees have become “punching bags” in Washington’s partisan fiscal fights. About 800,000 federal workers are being forced off the job because Congress did not pass a bill to keep the government funded ahead of Monday’s midnight deadline for the end of the 2013 fiscal year.

Obama says that if the shutdown continues, it will make it more difficult to recruit talented people for government jobs.

Congress plunged the nation into a partial government shutdown today, forcing some 800,000 federal workers off the job as a protracted dispute over the health care law reached the boiling point.

“Closed” signs and barricades sprang up today at the Lincoln Memorial, and national parks and many federal workplaces across the country followed suit. 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 – will continue to work. So will members of the military and employees whose jobs are financed through fees, such as State Department workers who issue passports and visas.

With the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate stalemated, it was unclear how long the shutdown – and the loss of some government programs and services – could last. The Senate early today rejected the House’s call to form a negotiating committee to resolve the deadlock.

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.”

But Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said GOP lawmakers were listening to constituents who want to “stop the runaway train called the federal government.” Their message, he said, is “Stay strong.”

Obama communications director Jennifer Palmieri told MSNBC that the White House was open to changes in the health care law in future negotiations, but not as part of passing a budget bill. She compared that to negotiating with “a gun pointed to your head.”

In the House, conservative Rep. Marsha Blackburn predicted the standoff might drag on for days if Obama and Senate Democrats refused to bargain. “People are going to realize they can live with a lot less government,” Blackburn, R-Tenn., told Fox News.

Another Republican, Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia, whose Norfolk-area district includes tens of thousands of military members and their families, tweeted “We fought the good fight. Time for a clean CR” – referring to a continuing resolution that would reopen the government without addressing health care.

This was the first shutdown since a budget battle between Republicans in Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton in the winter of 1995-1996.

Congress itself was affected. Some staffers were furloughed and hearings were postponed. The U.S. Capitol canceled tours not personally led by lawmakers. Democratic Sen. Tom Carper sent an email to his Delaware constituents telling them not to expect responses to their emails and phone calls.

Lawmakers and the president were still getting paid, however, at a rate totaling more than $250,000 per day. Most of the nation’s 2.1 million civilian federal workers were either working with their pay suspended or on unpaid furlough.

The Supreme Court operated as usual, even welcoming tour groups, but was at risk of running low on money if the shutdown lingers beyond Friday.

Tourists were left with few other government options. The Smithsonian website displayed a red banner noting that “all Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are closed.” On the zoo’s website, panda mom Mei Xiang could be seen snuggling with her weeks-old cub through the morning, until the feed was abruptly cut off around 8 a.m. Care of the animals will continue behind the scenes.

The White House was operating with a skeletal staff, including household workers taking care of the first family’s residence and presidential aides working in the West Wing. A groundskeeper working outside Tuesday morning at daybreak said he was doing the job normally handled by four workers.

Given the shutdown, White House officials were discussing whether Obama should change plans for a trip to Asia scheduled to begin Saturday.

The military will be paid under legislation freshly signed by Obama, but paychecks for other federal workers will be withheld until the impasse is broken. Federal workers were told to report to their jobs for a half-day but to perform only shutdown tasks like changing email greetings and closing down agencies’ Internet sites.

The self-funded Postal Service will continue to operate and the government will continue to pay Social Security benefits and Medicare and Medicaid fees to doctors on time.

As the standoff continued, some Republicans voiced nervousness.

Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma called the shutdown “a big mistake.” Interviewed on MSNBC, Cole called on House and Senate negotiations to end the impasse.

The order directing federal agencies to “execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations” was issued by White House Budget Director Sylvia Burwell shortly before midnight Monday.

The spending bill at the center of the fight would fund the government only through Nov. 15 if the Senate gets its way or until Dec. 15 if the House does – and even an agreement to reopen government temporarily might do little to fix the underlying standoff.

House Speaker John Boehner had sought to avoid the shutdown and engineer passage of a “clean” temporary spending bill. But tea party activists mobilized by freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, mounted a campaign to seize the must-do measure in an effort to derail Obamacare.

GOP leaders voiced reservations and many Republican lawmakers predicted it wouldn’t work, even as the party moved forward with the plan. The success of Cruz and other tea party-endorsed conservatives who upset establishment GOP candidates in 2010 and 2012 primaries was a lesson learned for many Republican lawmakers going into next year’s election.