WASHINGTON (CN) - President Barack Obama apologized to government employees today and blamed irresponsibility in Congress for the first partial government shutdown in 17 years.
"The federal government is America's largest employer, with more than 2 million civilian workers and 1.4 million active duty military who serve in all 50 States and around the world," Obama wrote.
"But Congress has failed to meet its responsibility to pass a budget before the fiscal year that begins today. And that means much of our government must shut down effective today."
Congress had been struggling with the budget Monday as House Republicans passed a budget that would delay enforcement of the so-called individual mandate of the new health care law.
Otherwise known as the minimum-coverage provision, the mandate imposes penalties on eligible citizens who choose not to purchase health insurance.
After the Supreme Court found rejected a constitutional challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act last year, the provision is set to take effect in 2014, empowering the Internal Revenue Service to collect the penalty with an individual's taxes, just as it would collect a penalty against those who overstate their income tax refunds.
When faced with the House's proposal, the Democratic-led Senate warned that refusal to yield would make Republicans responsible for putting so-called nonessential government employees, about 800,000 of them, out of work.
As midnight approached, the White House budget office instructed agencies to shut down.
"Appropriations provided under the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013 expire at 11:59 pm tonight," it said in a memorandum. "Unfortunately, we do not have a clear indication that Congress will act in time for the president to sign a Continuing Resolution before the end of the day tomorrow, October 1, 2013. Therefore, agencies should now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations. We urge Congress to act quickly to pass a continuing resolution to provide a short-term bridge that ensures sufficient time to pass a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year, and to restore the operation of critical public services and programs that will be impacted by a lapse in appropriations."
Obama had noted earlier that essential services including Social Security, postal service, and operations related to national security or public safety will continue.
Talking about the immediate changes Americans would see, the president said office buildings would close, and paychecks would be delayed.
"Vital services that seniors and veterans, women and children, businesses and our economy depend on would be hamstrung," Obama said. "Business owners would see delays in raising capital, seeking infrastructure permits, or rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. Veterans who've sacrificed for their country will find their support centers unstaffed. Tourists will find every one of America's national parks and monuments, from Yosemite to the Smithsonian to the Statue of Liberty, immediately closed. And of course, the communities and small businesses that rely on these national treasures for their livelihoods will be out of customers and out of luck."
Congress did approve at the last-minute Monday an agreement to keep issuing military paychecks.
Obama noted in his letter Tuesday that the "shutdown was completely preventable."
"It should not have happened," he added. "And the House of Representatives can end it as soon as it follows the Senate's lead, and funds your work in the United States government without trying to attach highly controversial and partisan measures in the process.
"Hopefully, we will resolve this quickly."
The Washington Post reported that the government had closed six times between 1977 and 1980, and nine times between 1981 and 1996.
"Shutdowns in the 1970s and 1980s ranged from three to 17 days," according to its coverage. "A shutdown in November 1995 lasted five days. The most recent shutdown was from mid-December 1995 to early January 1996. That one lasted 21 days."
In the last shutdown, it was also a Republican-led Congress that failed to pass a budget.
Veterans of that battle claim, however, that there are few other similarities to the current debate.
"The biggest difference by far is that the last one was all about spending, and this one is not," former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan told the Wall Street Journal.
"It's about policy."
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