WASHINGTON — With a little more than 10 hours until the federal government was set to shut down, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr laid the blame at the feet of President Barack Obama and Democrats.
Barr, in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader in his Washington congressional office, said he had voted "multiple times" to keep the government running, although the legislation would cause a one-year delay in implementing Obama's health care law.
"If they continue to refuse to seek a middle ground, if they refuse to engage in a bipartisan discussion, then a shutdown will happen," Barr said. "And it will be because of the stubbornness of the president and the Senate for failing to even engage in a discussion with the House of Representatives."
Obama made clear from the onset that he would not engage in budget discussions if they were used as a way to gut or repeal his signature legislation. Senate Democrats backed the president, refusing to pass the latest House measure that would fund the government while delaying some of the law.
Looking occasionally at the clock on his office wall ticking closer to shutdown, Barr on Monday assailed what he said is the president's stubborn refusal to negotiate with House Republicans, accusing Democrats of being the party driving the country toward a "Closed" sign.
"I am unequivocal — I oppose shutting down the government," Barr said. "But the only way to prevent a shutdown of the government is for the president to actually participate and lead."
Barr, R-Lexington, disputed the notion put forth by Democrats that tying the controversial health care law to the budget was a reckless way to play politics.
"This is a spending bill," Barr said. "This is a tax and spending bill. There is a fundamental connection between putting the American taxpayers on the hook for an additional $2 trillion."
Barr said he would vote for a temporary measure that keeps the government running if it meant "the president is willing to come down and negotiate with us and the Senate is willing to negotiate with us."
But Barr said he will not vote in favor of a longer-term spending bill that doesn't include changes to the health care law.
"My constituents don't want me to do that," Barr said. "What I'm hearing is they want protection from Obamacare."
Obama on Monday appeared in the White House briefing room and accused House Republicans of trying to "extract a ransom to do your job."
"One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn't get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election," Obama said.
While Democrats argue that the health care legislation has been settled by the Supreme Court and the 2012 presidential election — House Speaker John Boehner has called it "the law of the land" — Barr said "this is a country that's divided, as evidenced by the last election when they reelected a president who supported Obamacare but reelected a Congress that opposed Obamacare."
"What's so frustrating to me is that the president is open and willing to negotiate with Iran, open and willing to negotiate with Vladimir Putin, open and willing to negotiate with Syria; but won't even negotiate with the elected representatives in the United States House of Representatives," Barr said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) blasted Barr on Monday, saying that "Barr has proved once again why he represents everything Kentucky residents hate about Washington."
"This shutdown is a direct result of Congressman Barr's refusal to solve even the most pressing and basic problems — and once again, Congressman Barr is standing in the way of solutions in order to pursue a tired, dysfunctional, ideological agenda that will hurt middle class families," David Bergstein, a DCCC spokesman, said in a statement to the Herald-Leader.
Republicans were widely blamed after the last government shutdown in 1995, and polling indicates they will be blamed if it happens again. Barr said he is focused neither on politics nor polls.
"I think that the American people will blame everybody in Washington," Barr said. "Everybody, Republicans, independents and Democrats, if we can't accomplish these two objectives to limit the harmful impact of Obamacare and keep the government running."
While most Republicans towing the Tea Party line on defunding or delaying Obamacare hail from safe, Republican-leaning districts, Barr faces a more politically diverse constituency.
Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said Barr could be moving toward a "difficult situation" when voters go to the polls next November.
"He has to be a little more careful than the rest," Gross said.
So far, three Democrats have entered the race to challenge Barr in 2014. Democrats who have declared their bids in recent weeks are Joe Palumbo, a Lexington business owner and son of longtime state Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo; Elisabeth Jensen, executive director of the nonprofit Race for Education; and lawyer Michael Coblenz. All three live in Lexington.
Sam Youngman: Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com