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WASHINGTON – A stalemate in Congress that caused a government shutdown today continued with Senate Democrats voting for a fourth time to reject a spending plan by House Republicans that sought to undermine Obamacare.

This time, the House proposal also included a call for a conference committee to seek a compromise, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats turned down the package because it amounted to extortion by Republicans to force concessions on President Barack Obama’s signature health care reforms.

Reid said the Senate wants to negotiate a budget with the House, “but not with the government closed.”

“We’re not going to relitigate the health care issue,” Reid said after the latest Senate vote, calling for the House to now approve a “clean” spending plan to fund the government for a few months before separate negotiations on possible changes to the 2010 Affordable Care Act. “It’s time for Republicans to stop obsessing over old battles.”

However, sources in the House Republican leadership told CNN today that they plan a series of separate votes to fund specific government departments or agencies, starting with spending for veterans, the District of Columbia and the Park Service.

Some conservatives led by GOP Senator Ted Cruz of Texas have called for such a strategy, which would force opponents to vote against authorizing spending for popular programs such as veterans affairs.

Under the scenario described by Cruz, the piecemeal spending plan would be a way to defund Obamacare on a step-by-step basis.

The shutdown occurred when a game of political chicken ended in failure in the first minutes of today, with neither side blinking.

That brought the outcome nobody said they wanted – a shutdown that will stop 800,000 Americans from getting paid and could cost the economy about $1 billion a week.

“Agencies should now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations,” the Office of Management and Budget said in a note to federal employees.

It is the first time the government has shut down in nearly 18 years. The last time it happened, during the Clinton administration, the stalemate lasted 21 days.

Now, the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate will try to see if they can reconcile their two versions of the spending plan at the center of the debate. So far, each has refused to budge on how to fund the government in the new fiscal year, which started Tuesday.

At the White House, Obama blamed Republicans for the shutdown, saying it occurred because Conservatives want to dismantle the 2010 Affordable Care Act that he championed.

“Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to fund the government unless we defunded or dismantled the Affordable Care Act,” he said, flanked by people who the White House said had benefited from the health care reforms.

In some of his strongest criticism so far, Obama said the shutdown intended to hinder government efforts to provide health insurance to 15% of the US population that doesn’t have coverage, adding it was “strange that one party would make keeping people uninsured the centerpiece of their agenda.” (CNN 

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