WASHINGTON -- The prevailing wisdom on Capitol Hill on Monday was that the federal government is headed toward at least a brief shutdown at midnight, given the impasse over how, if at all, President Obama’s new healthcare law should figure into any stopgap spending plan.
But as House GOP leaders met, they were also considering a stopgap measure that would fund the government for another week or so as talks continue. That could push a deadline for action closer to the next budget fight, the need to raise the nation's debt limit in mid-October.
Congressional aides cautioned that the strategy remained in flux, as Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) struggled to get his troops to coalesce around their next move.
"The bigger leverage is the debt ceiling, and I think we need to shift our attention to that," said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who promised to keep trying to halt the Affordable Care Act. “I don't think we should keep trying the same thing over and over again, and think only a minority think that."
After it was called into session Monday afternoon, the Senate quickly dismissed proposals from the House, passed early Sunday, to delay the healthcare law, commonly known as Obamacare, for a full year and to repeal the law’s tax on medical devices as a condition for a stopgap spending plan.
House Republicans huddled in the Capitol basement to game out their response to the Senate action. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said several proposals were being considered.
Possibilities include returning the spending bill to the Senate with only the medical-device-tax repeal, a one-year delay of the mandate that individuals have health insurance, or a politically thorny proposal that would eliminate subsidies the members of Congress and some staff members receive to help cover premiums for insurance in health exchanges.
Throughout the showdown, Republican strategy has been dictated by the party's most conservative flank, which has subscribed to the “Defund Obamacare” campaign championed by outside groups and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
However, this past weekend more moderate elements in the House GOP for the first time began speaking up publicly about the political risk for the party in the event of a shutdown.
At a closed-door meeting Saturday, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) urged his colleagues to keep in mind the “big picture,” acknowledging that Obama is not likely to abandon his signature legislative accomplishment. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), leaving a second strategy session Saturday, said that although he supported the party’s approach at the time, a government shutdown would be “inexcusable.”
Of 233 Republicans in the House, just 17 represent districts Obama carried in the 2012 election. Nearly two dozen more are in districts that Obama only narrowly lost to Mitt Romney. That cohort would potentially suffer the most in the event of a political backlash against the party, even if the strategy was driven by those in safer, more reliably Republican seats.
Before House Republicans met Monday, members of what’s known as the “Tuesday Group” of center-to-center-right Republicans got together to consider their options. Those members have wielded minimal influence in the conference this year, but could be in position to counter the more conservative forces. If a band of GOP moderates made clear they would reject all but a clean spending bill, it could force a resolution.
“The hourglass is nearly empty. The government is going to shut down,” Dent said Monday. “We could launch another volley. I suspect that the Senate would then reject it and send it back. And we’re going to be at the same point again. The question is at what time -- before or after the government shuts down.”