WASHINGTON — With one week left before a possible government shutdown, congressional debate has exposed deep divisions within the Republican Party, pitting tea-party-backed conservatives against their colleagues.
Budget moves orchestrated by tea party leader Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas have encountered outright hostility from fellow Republican senators who say his strategy does not appear to have an endgame.
"I didn't go to Harvard or Princeton, but I can count," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said last week in a not-so-veiled swipe on Twitter at Cruz, who studied at both schools. Cruz's strategy is leading the party into a "box canyon" and "will fail and weaken our position," Corker said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to begin debate this week on legislation approved by the Republican-led House that would keep the government running but do away with President Obama's Affordable Care Act.
Because the Senate's Democratic majority is likely to have enough votes to strip out the healthcare law provision and keep Obama's signature domestic achievement on track, Republicans have few options.
They can block the entire bill, joining Cruz's call for a filibuster and risking blame if the government shuts down. Or they can step aside and try to fight the healthcare law during the next budget battle in mid-October.
"I believe we should stand our ground," Cruz said on "Fox News Sunday."
Cruz, a potential presidential contender who just started his filibuster strategy in recent days, conceded that he did not yet have the backing of enough fellow Republicans. But he and his allies, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), are working on it.
"This has been a fast-moving target. You know, just a few weeks ago we didn't have anywhere near the votes we needed in the House or in the Senate," Cruz said. "It's now our turn to unify, to stand together with House Republicans."
But top Republicans publicly and privately say a filibuster could be a losing proposition. Not only would the party probably face public blame — much as it did during the last government shutdowns in 1995 and '96 — but there is no simple exit strategy even if it succeeds.
Several key Republicans have distanced themselves from their more firebrand colleagues. A sign of the party's public relations pretzel was clear Saturday as the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America urged senators to block the bill, which on Friday it had urged House Republicans to pass.
"If we could do this, we should do it. But we can't," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said on "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
To overcome a Republican filibuster, Democrats would need at least six GOP senators — possibly more if some of their 54-member caucus defect — to reach the necessary 60-vote threshold to advance the bill. Most Senate aides think Democrats will have the votes.
Republicans have been counting on defections in particular among Democrats up for reelection in 2014 in states where the Affordable Care Act is less popular. So far, Democratic support for Obama's healthcare law has largely held. Both Sens. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who are up for reelection next year, have said they will not vote to defund the healthcare law as part of a routine government funding bill.
Polls continue to be mixed on the healthcare law, with many Americans saying they remain confused about what it entails and how it will affect their personal health insurance options. A key test comes Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, when the new online health marketplaces open, allowing many uninsured Americans to shop for policies they will be required to carry in 2014.
"The biggest poll we had on this was the last election," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" on Sunday. "President Obama said that he was going to implement the Affordable Care Act, and Mitt Romney said he was going to defund it. And the president won."
This week's Senate action could push the shutdown threat to the final hours. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has told lawmakers to prepare for a weekend session.
The longer the Republican senators fight — consuming every minute of floor time — the less time Boehner has to devise alternatives, a problem facing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as he attempts to lead renegade senators.
If Senate Republicans fail to block the bill, then Democrats, under Senate rules, will need only a simple majority to delete the provision that would defund the healthcare law. Under that scenario, the bill would return to the House, probably over the weekend, with less than 48 hours for Boehner to act before money halts for federal services, including national parks and soldiers' pay.
Republicans in the House and Senate insist they have no intention of shutting down the government. All they want, they say, is to undo the president's healthcare law before it starts.
Some in their party want to push the confrontation to next month, when Congress will be asked to raise the debt limit to continue paying the nation's bills, but many Republicans see this as their best chance.
"We hope the Senate will stand up to fight," said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who helped organize Republican efforts in the House. "I am confident that we'll have Senate Republicans up there fighting for the American people."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times