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As Congress battles, Obama addresses US on Day 1 of shutdown

President Barack Obama has spoken hours into the first US government shutdown in 17 years. Earlier, the US Senate again voted 54-46 along party lines to reject a House funding plan that would strip health care reform.

Speaking in the White House Rose Garden on a day when 800,000 federal employees received orders to stay home, US President Barack Obama blamed Tea Party Republicans for the failure of Congress to pass legislation to extend temporary funding to the government beyond a deadline that expired at midnight on Monday.

Obama said the partial shutdown of the federal government had been caused by "one faction of one party in one house of Congress."

"We may not know the full impact of this Republican shutdown for a long time," Obama said. "The longer this shutdown continues, the worse the effects will be," the president added. "More families will be hurt, more business will be harmed."

Nonessential civilian defense staff have the day - and potentially many other days - off, as is the case for other federal government services and programs not seen as imperative. Regulatory agencies, federal museums, national parks and NASA were among the institutions facing closure; exemptions were granted to civil servants including air-traffic controllers, most food inspectors and Border Patrol agents.

Temporary spending bills usually pass with bipartisan support. The last two shutdowns proved unpopular when a Republican-led House forced them, both in the winter of 1995-1996, severely damaging the party's election prospects and reviving then-President Bill Clinton's political standing.

"Unlike 1996, our economy is still recovering from the worst recession in generations," Obama said.

Fighting health care

The crisis has its roots in a campaign by the most right-wing faction of the Republican Party, known as the Tea Party, to overturn the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which is meant to allow better access to health services for millions of previously uninsured Americans. Key portions of the act, known popularly as Obamacare, came into force on Tuesday, the same day as the shutdown did.

"They've shut down the government over an ideological crusade to deny affordable health insurance to millions of Americans," Obama said. He then challenged Republicans in the House of Representatives to "allow the public servants who have been sent home to return to work."

The shutdown began when Congress missed a midnight deadline at midnight on Monday to pass a temporary funding bill, stalled by conservative efforts to push through a delay in the health care law. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of the Democrats said he would not negotiate as long as Republicans continued to hold up a straightforward spending bill to keep the government operating.

Earlier on Tuesday, Obama's communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, told the US cable news channel MSNBC that the White House remained open to changes in the health care law in future negotiations, but not as part of passing a seemingly unrelated budget bill. She compared this to negotiating with "a gun pointed to your head."

'Completely irresponsible'

In South Korea on Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Hagel said that allowing domestic policy differences to trigger a government shutdown was a poor move on the part of Congress. Hagel said that roughly half of the Department of Defense's 800,000 civilian staff would be told to go home when they reported to work on Tuesday.

"This dark cloud of uncertainty ... affects our missions around the world. It affects our allies questioning our commitment," Hagel said in Seoul. "It does cast a very significant pall over America's credibility with our allies when this kind of thing happens. It's nonsensical ... It's completely irresponsible."

On Monday evening, shortly before the midnight deadline passed, Obama had recorded a message to the armed forces, saying the rival parties in the US had reached a deal to continue paying 1.4 million military employees around the world.

mkg/pfd (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)