WASHINGTON — Legislation to fund the government cleared the Senate on Friday but moved to the House, where infighting among the Republican majority left little time for Congress to act before a midnight Monday deadline to avert a shutdown of many government programs.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) left the Capitol after a midmorning meeting with his leadership team failed to reach consensus on an approach. He plans to assemble Republicans again at noon Saturday.
The Democrats who control the Senate easily beat back a GOP strategy led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that aimed to tie the government funding bill to a measure that would have blocked President Obama’s healthcare law. More than half of the Republican senators joined the Democrats in rejecting Cruz’s hard-line approach.
But Cruz and his conservative Republican allies in the House have refused to relinquish the fight. The senator met privately with tea party lawmakers in the House this week, complicating Boehner’s efforts to unite his restive majority around a strategy.
As the speaker and his leadership team tried to devise an endgame, federal agencies began notifying employees about whether they would be furloughed in the event of a shutdown, and prepared to shutter the popular Smithsonian museums, close national parks and halt many basic government services.
Obama, in a late-afternoon appearance in the White House briefing room, warned Republicans not to “threaten to burn the house down simply because you haven’t gotten 100% of your way.”
“My message to Congress is this: Do not shut down the government. Do not shut down the economy,” he said. “Pass a budget on time. Pay our bills on time. Refocus on the everyday concerns of the American people.”
The president cast the GOP effort as “political grandstanding” and said he would not buckle. “The House Republicans are so concerned with appeasing the tea party that they’ve threatened a government shutdown or worse unless I gut or repeal the Affordable Care Act,” Obama said. “That’s not going to happen.”
Tea party Republicans see the threat of a shutdown as their best chance to stop the Affordable Care Act before Tuesday, when the online marketplaces to buy health insurance under the new law are set to open. But the president said Friday that the marketplaces would open on time even if there is a shutdown. “That’s a done deal,” he said.
Many Republican strategists have warned that voters will blame their party for a shutdown, noting that happened the last time government offices were shuttered in 1995 and 1996. But many conservative lawmakers were not in Congress then and have rejected such warnings, saying polls show Americans do not support Obamacare.
Republicans, meanwhile, sought to blame Obama for the standoff.
“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,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. “Grandstanding from the president, who refuses to even be a part of the process, won’t bring Congress any closer to a resolution.”
The deep GOP divisions spilled into the open this week as Cruz rankled fellow Republicans with his attention-getting, 21-hour-plus Senate speech promoting what many colleagues view as a doomed strategy.
Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) met Thursday with some of the most conservative House Republicans for a dinner that lasted late into the evening. The senators encouraged their colleagues to stand firm against any funding bill that does not fully delay the healthcare law.
“I am hopeful; I am confident that the House will continue to stand its ground, continue to listen to the American people and step up to respond and to stop this train wreck — this nightmare that is Obamacare,” Cruz said after the Senate votes that sent the bill back to the House without the provision to cut money for the healthcare program.
At the same time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is influential among Republicans, urged Congress in a letter also signed by 235 other groups not to shut down the government or default on the debt. The debt limit must be raised by Oct. 17 for the nation to continue paying its bills and avoid a default.
The party’s former standard-bearer, presidential candidate Mitt Romney, also warned against the strategy. “The tactic of using a government shutdown to try and push that will be counterproductive politically,” he said in an interview on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.” “I don’t think that will be as effective.”
House Republicans plan to discuss several proposals Saturday that would tie a new Obamacare rollback provision to the funding bill. That could prolong the standoff with the Senate and lead to a legislative pingpong that could take days to resolve, all but ensuring that the government would shut down.
The hard-right flank is pushing for a one-year delay of the healthcare law. The proposal, by Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), is supported by more than 60 other House Republicans, and if they hold firm, they could deny Boehner the majority he needs to pass a less restrictive measure.
Other Republicans have suggested delaying the mandate that individuals must carry health insurance by 2014 or face a fine.
Some have also suggested more modest measures, including one to repeal a tax on medical-device manufacturers and another to prevent members of Congress and staff from receiving federal funding toward their health insurance — a hit to lawmakers’ pocketbooks that members of Congress oppose.
Boehner may see no option but to try again to cut back Obamacare, but the strategy of tacking other healthcare provisions onto the funding bill appears doomed to fail. Democrats in the Senate are united in their pledge to protect the healthcare law. No Democratic senators voted Friday to end funding for the program.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has taken to calling House Republicans “anarchists,” dismissed the tea party flank as the “weird caucus.”
“Any bill that continues to play political games will force a government shutdown,” he said. “To be absolutely clear: We are going to accept nothing as it relates to Obamacare.”
Alternatively, Boehner could seek support from Democrats to approve a funding bill without any healthcare provisions, but he has been reluctant to do that for fear of upsetting his conservative majority.
That Cruz has continued to pursue his strategy despite its failure in the Senate pointed to the sway of tea-party-aligned organizations that have supported the renegade Republican over the elected party leadership.
“It says more about the Republican leadership than it says about Cruz,” said Chris Chocola, a former Indiana congressman who is president of the Club for Growth, a free-market group influential among Republicans. “They leave this huge void for someone to come up with an idea and provide leadership, and they don’t like it when someone does.”