WASHINGTON: Time running short, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed urgent legislation Friday to avert a government shutdown early next week, and President Barack Obama lectured House Republicans to stop “appeasing the tea party” and quickly follow suit.
Despite the presidential plea — and the urgings of their own leaders — House GOP rebels showed no sign of retreat in their drive to use the threat of a shutdown to uproot the nation’s three-year-old health-care law.
“We now move on to the next stage of this battle,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is a face of the “Defund Obamacare” campaign in the Senate and is in close contact with allies in the House.
The first effects of a shutdown could show up as early as Tuesday if Congress fails to approve money to keep the government going by the Monday-midnight start of the new fiscal year.
“Think about who you are hurting” if government services are interrupted, Obama said at the White House, as House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, pondered his next move in a fast-unfolding showdown — not only between Republicans and Democrats but between GOP leaders and conservative insurgents.
Despite Obama’s appeal, the Senate-passed measure faces a swift demise in the House at the hands of tea party conservatives who are adamantly opposed to funding that the measure includes for the three-year-old health-care law.
The Senate’s 54-44 vote was strictly along party lines in favor of the bill, which would keep the government operating routinely through Nov. 15.
The immediate impacts of a shutdown would be felt unevenly. Soldiers, air traffic controllers and many other federal workers would remain on the job. Social Security payments would still go out. But national parks would close to visitors. There would be problems for homebuyers seeking government-backed mortgages and for people applying for some other programs. Delays and closings would spread if a shutdown last for long.
Friday’s Senate vote masked a ferocious struggle for control of the Republican Party pitting Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., against rebels led by relatively junior lawmakers, Cruz and Mike Lee of Utah and a few dozen allies in the House among them.
The outcome of that contest — more than differences between the two political parties — is likely to determine whether the government shuts down for the first time in nearly two decades.
Cruz told reporters he had numerous conversations with fellow conservatives in recent days, adding, “I am confident the House of Representatives will continue to stand its ground, continue to listen to the American people and ... stop this train wreck, this nightmare that is Obamacare.”
The House is scheduled to be in session today and Sunday, but it is unclear when it will vote on a new bill to avert a shutdown, and what health care-related items it will include.
Flirting with a shutdown
Obama, speaking at the White House more than an hour after the Senate vote, said it was up to House Republicans to follow the Senate’s lead and prevent a shutdown. He said the struggle has nothing to do with budget deficits, and said if Republicans “have specific ideas on how to genuinely improve the [health-care] law rather than gut it, rather than delay it, rather than repeal it, I am happy to work with them.”
He also said even a shutdown would not prevent the scheduled opening of so-called health-care exchanges next Tuesday through which millions of Americans will be able to shop for coverage. “That’s a done deal,” he said.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, issued a news release in response that said, “The House will take action that reflects the fundamental fact that Americans don’t want a government shutdown and they don’t want the train wreck that is Obamacare. Grandstanding from the president, who refuses to even be a part of the process, won’t bring Congress any closer to a resolution.”
Republican lawmakers said Boehner had made it clear he would continue to seek health care-related concessions from the White House when the House passes its next shutdown-prevention legislation. But the rank and file rebelled on Thursday when leaders suggested moving the main focus of the effort to defund Obamacare to a separate bill rather than continue to flirt with a shutdown.
There is little or no disagreement between the House and Senate over spending levels in the legislation now moving from one side of the Capitol to the other, and except for health care, passage might well be routine. The bill provides funds at an annual rate of slightly more than $986 billion, in keeping with an agreement Obama and Republicans made two years ago to restrain the growth of a wide swath of government spending from the Pentagon to the nation’s parks.
Without separate legislation to make further reductions, across-the-board cuts will automatically take effect early next year that will reduce the level to $967 billion, and Republicans are fond of pointing out that the government is on track to spend less on those programs for the second year in a row — for the first time since the Korean War.
But Republicans voted unanimously against the health-care law when it passed Congress, backed lawsuits to challenge its constitutionality, and some now seek to strangle it before its final implementation begins next Tuesday.
GOP united against Obamacare
Cruz, Lee and several tea party groups seized on the issue during Congress’ five week summer vacation, turning “Defund Obamacare” into a rallying cry backed by television commercials, public rallies and emails.
The result was a bruising week in the Senate in which Cruz spoke for slightly more than 21 hours straight in hopes of swaying some votes his way, only to lose by far on the showdown that he described as the crucial one.
That was a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to cut off debate on the spending bill, a move that also meant Democrats needed a mere majority of the votes to restore money for the health-care law that the House had omitted.
The vote was 79-19, 19 more than the 60 needed to cut off debate. All 52 Democrats, two independents and 25 of 44 Republicans voted in favor. That included McConnell and much of the GOP leadership with the exception of Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, who heads the party’s campaign committee.
McConnell had said repeatedly it made no sense to block legislation to prevent a shutdown and defund Obamacare, both of which Republicans support.
Cruz and Lee argued otherwise in what amounted to a direct challenge to McConnell’s leadership, but drew the support of only 17 other Republicans.
Reid excoriated tea party Republicans in remarks before the votes, and said they support “a shutdown that would shatter the economy.”
Reprising a theme he has used in recent days, he added, “A bad day for government is a good day for the anarchists among us.”
McConnell, who faces a primary challenger as he seeks a new Senate term in Kentucky, focused his remarks almost exclusively on the health-care law rather than the turmoil in the party he leads. “Republicans are united on the need to repeal Obamacare,” he said. “The American people want this bill repealed. ... I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of our Democrat colleagues secretly want it repealed.”