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Obama prepares for government shutdown, hopes for deal

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press about the government shutdown in the briefing room of the White House in Washingt
U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press about the government shutdown in the briefing room of the White House in Washingt

By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday prepared Americans for what he called an "entirely preventable" government shutdown while urging Republicans in Congress to reach an 11th-hour deal to avoid economic harm.

With no apparent movement in negotiations, the White House prepared to put in place a skeleton staff on Tuesday to operate essential functions like the National Security Council. Many staff were preparing for furloughs of uncertain length.

And Obama's own plans seemed up in the air. He is scheduled to leave Saturday on a four-nation, week-long tour to Asia, but a shutdown could force a postponement.

"We have this trip scheduled, and we intend to take it," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "You know, we'll see obviously what happens as the week unfolds."

Hours before a shutdown was to begin, Obama placed phone calls to the two top congressional Republicans, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, but they appeared to restate well-worn positions and there was no sign of a breakthrough.

"The president made clear that Congress has two jobs to do: pay the bills on time and pass a budget on time. Failure to fulfill those responsibilities is harmful to our economy, small businesses and middle class families across the country," the White House said.

The president and his aides worked to prepare Americans for the possibility of a shutdown, the resulting impact on the U.S. economy and to pin the blame on Republicans who want to gut his healthcare law.

"I respect the fact that the other party is not supposed to agree with me 100 percent of the time, just like I don't agree with them. But they do also expect that we don't bring the entire government to a halt or the entire economy to a halt just because of those differences," he said.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Obama stressed that mail would be delivered and Social Security payments would be made, but warned that national monuments would close immediately to tourists, government office buildings would close and veteran centers would lack staff if a shutdown took place.

"A shutdown will have a very real economic impact on real people, right away. Past shutdowns have disrupted the economy significantly. This one will too."

The law funding thousands of routine government activities expires at midnight.

Washington edged ever closer to a shutdown as the U.S. Senate, controlled by Democrats, killed a proposal by the Republican-led House of Representatives to delay Obama's healthcare law for a year in return for temporary funding of the federal government beyond Monday.

Obama stressed that the healthcare law, known as Obamacare, would proceed regardless of whether the government shut its doors.

Publicly, Obama was optimistic about a last-second deal. Speaking during an Oval Office meeting with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama said he was not resigned to a shutdown happening and in his remarks to reporters later he said he hoped a deal could still be reached.

"Time is running out. My hope and expectation is that in the 11th hour once again that Congress will choose to do the right thing."

As the hours ticked away toward a shutdown, Obama met with his Cabinet to discuss the potential disruptions of a shutdown for their respective agencies and ensure essential operations will take place.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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