In the midst of an international crisis, the prospect of a government shutdown intensified Wednesday as House conservatives balked at Republican leaders’ efforts to pass a spending bill that did not explicitly eliminate funds for President Obama’s healthcare law.
Conservatives denounced the leadership’s plan as “hocus-pocus.” They held firm on using the threat of shutting down the government as a lever to stop the debut of the law’s online insurance marketplaces on Oct. 1. A vote planned for Thursday was abruptly canceled.
The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Congress has failed to pass any of the bills to fund government operations after that date. Unless both houses pass a spending bill by then, a host of government agencies will have to close.
White House aides say Obama would veto any bill that cuts off funds for the healthcare law. Many conservative strategists contend that Obama is bluffing and say Republicans should put him to the test. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his allies fear that strategy would harm their party, much as a government shutdown did in the mid-1990s.
The standoff with House conservatives is the latest of a series in which Boehner and his leadership team have been unable to direct their GOP majority on money-related measures.
Republican leaders promised the vote would be rescheduled for next week, once Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the majority whip, and his team have met with small groups of lawmakers to explain the leadership’s strategy.
“We just need a couple extra days,” said a Republican leadership aide, granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Getting anything this big accomplished” in a limited time frame “is always tough,” the aide noted.
But the House is scheduled to be in session for only five more working days this month, giving the leadership a tight deadline. Rank-and-file conservatives, who see the deadline to fund the government as their last shot to stop the healthcare law, doubt Boehner and his allies can round up the votes.
“I don’t think more time is going to fix this bill,” said second-term Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).
The plan offered by House Republican leaders would provide money for government agencies to keep operating through Dec. 15. They would loosely attach to that bill a measure to delay the healthcare law, known as the Affordable Care Act.
That combination would give House Republicans a chance to keep the promise many of them made to vote to “defund Obamacare.” But because the two measures would be separable, Democrats in the Senate, who hold the majority there, could pass the government-funding bill and reject the healthcare law delay.
Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) proposed the plan during a closed-door meeting with Republican lawmakers Tuesday. Boehner told his troops that ordinary Americans “want to stop this law -- but they don’t want to shut down the government,” according to a source familiar with the talk.
Republican leaders tried to sell the plan as one that would force the Senate to debate and vote on the healthcare law. They were counting on the fact that members of the House often relish forcing senators to take tough votes on politically controversial measures.
But top conservatives denounced the plan since it almost certainly would result in the healthcare law staying on track.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) called the plan “hocus-pocus.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) dubbed it “chicanery.” Outside groups that can be influential in primary elections urged a vote against it.
The whip count ahead of Thursday’s planned vote showed the proposal would fail.
Conservative lawmakers are circulating tougher alternatives. They say they do not want to shut down the entire government, only the healthcare law.
“I’m willing to take on all of the bad karma of funding all the things I don’t agree with just to get Obamacare defunded,” Massie said.
The budget battles had been billed as Congress’ top order of business this fall. But Obama’s proposal to launch missile strikes on Syria -- now on hold while a diplomatic alternative is explored -- upended the schedule.
Now, with time dwindling for a compromise amid a tense national security debate on Capitol Hill, Democrats seized on the delay as another entry in what House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the “Republican record of dysfunction and disarray.”
“Republicans can’t get their own act together,” said Pelosi (D-San Francisco).