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A furloughed federal employee (R) holds a sign on the steps of the U.S. Capitol after the U.S. Government shut down last night, on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 1, 2013.Larry Downing/Reuters

A bitter budget standoff on Capitol Hill forced the shutdown of the U.S. government Tuesday after Congress failed to meet a midnight deadline to pay for ongoing operations.

The fight over President Barack Obama's controversial health-care scheme forced the furlough of upwards of 1 million federal government workers – leaving National Parks, museums along the Mall and NASA mostly shut down – but essential workers such as border guards, air traffic controllers and federal food inspectors still working.

Most non-essential government work – including medical research – will grind to a halt. The National Zoo was closed but keepers will feed the animals.

Back-and-forth battles with the Democrat-controlled Senate repeatedly rejecting bills from the Republican-dominated House of Representatives ended in impasse at midnight, forcing the first government shutdown in 17 years.

Each time House Republicans sent a funding bill to the Senate with a provision to defund Obamacare, it was blocked. And President Obama warned he would veto any such legislation anyway.

On Tuesday morning the Senate, where Democrats have a majority, quickly rejected 54-46 another gambit from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives calling for a conference to hammer out a compromise.

"We will not go to conference with a gun to our head," Sen. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and Majority Leader, said before the Senate rejected the proposal. He is demanding a simple, unencumbered spending authorization to fund government operations before any negotiations.

After the vote, Sen. Reid lambasted Republicans saying House Speaker John "Boehner and his gang of Tea Party radicals have done the unthinkable, they have shut down the government."

The president accused Republican lawmakers of attempting to "extract a ransom for doing your job … just because there's a law there that you don't like."

Whether the shutdown lasts less than a day – Congress was expected resume grappling later Tuesday – or drags on for weeks, Republicans seem destined to lose.

"We can't win," admitted Sen. John McCain, the plain-speaking Republican from Arizona, saying publicly what many in his party know privately to be true, adding that a simple funding resolution shorn of any Obamacare cuts will "happen sooner or later."

But right-wing hardliners led by Senator Ted Cruz, a Canadian-born Texas Republican who tweeted "Don't Blink" to followers last night, and the Tea Party faction in the House vowed to fight on. So far they have drowned out Republican moderates such as Maine Sen. Susan Collins who said "the strategy of linking Obamacare with the continuing functioning of government … cannot possibly work."

Some Republicans are furious with Sen. Cruz, the new Tea Party darling who filibustered for 21 hours to no avail leading what now seems a doomed effort to derail Obamacare. "It's a dead-end, it's a dead-end that was orchestrated by Ted Cruz," said Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican moderate. "It's going to hurt the government, it's going to hurt the Congress, it's going to hurt the Republican Congress, it's a dead-end," he told NBC.

The impasse in Congress raised the stakes that an even-more dire deadline looming in mid-October – the need to increase the U.S. government's $16.7-trillion debt ceiling. It too could fail in bitter partisan wrangling.

Infuriated Americans told pollsters they blamed both parties as well as the president.

Roughly one-quarter of respondents said they blamed Republicans for a shutdown, while 14 per cent blamed the president and five per cent would blame Congressional Democrats, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. The other 44 per cent said everyone in Washington bore the blame.

In a two-page letter sent Tuesday to hundreds of thousands of federal public employees, Mr. Obama apologized and thanked them for their service.

"You do all this in a political climate that, too often in recent years, has treated you like a punching bag. You have endured three years of federal pay freezes, harmful sequester cuts and, now, a shutdown .... none of this is fair to you," he wrote.

The next move is up to Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who must contain the Tea Party faction while avoiding a growing public backlash that could hurt Republicans at next year's mid-term elections.

Mr. Boehner said he didn't want a government shutdown but added, Obamacare "is having a devastating impact ... something has to be done."

Co-incidentally, the exchanges or marketplaces that will allow tens of millions of Americans to buy health care – and be required to do so – opened for business Tuesday.