WASHINGTON — Launching a risky strategy that draws the federal government to the edge of a shutdown, House Republicans doubled down on their drive to stop President Obama’s healthcare law as a condition for keeping federal offices running past the midnight Monday deadline.
The hard-line approach failed last week in the Senate, but House Republican leaders saw little choice but to cater to the demands of their right flank and try again, setting up a rare Saturday night session. Tea party lawmakers who say they believe ordinary Americans want to end the Affordable Care Act have committed to that goal, even if Republicans are blamed for shutting down routine government services for the first time in nearly two decades.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was cheered with chants of “Vote! Vote! Vote!” as he outlined the proposal during a noon meeting in the Capitol basement. After midnight Saturday, the House approved the plan, sending legislation to the Senate to fund the government through Dec. 15 but delay the rollout of the healthcare law for one year and repeal the law’s tax on medical-device manufacturers. A separate bill was unanimously approved to ensure that military troops continue to be paid if there is a shutdown.
House Republicans appeared unswayed by the certainty that this latest effort is doomed in the Senate, where Democrats have the majority, or by stern warnings from the White House, which promised a veto and said the amendments “advance a narrow ideological agenda and threaten the nation’s economy.”
The president’s spokesman warned Republicans against pursuing this “reckless and irresponsible” path. “Today, Republicans in the House of Representatives moved to shut down the government,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. “The president has shown that he is willing to improve the healthcare law and meet Republicans more than halfway to deal with our fiscal challenges, but he will not do so under threats of a government shutdown that will hurt our economy.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) vowed Saturday that Americans would not be “extorted by tea party anarchists.”
“To be absolutely clear, the Senate will reject both the one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act and the repeal of the medical-device tax,” he said in a statement. “After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at square one.”
The Senate, which was not expected to resume work on the bill until Monday, could operate under rules that require only a simple majority to reject the Republican amendments, a leadership aide said. That could leave the House on the hook to pass the government funding bill later Monday or launch a shutdown.
Boehner would then have few choices. He could try to approve a stopgap measure to keep the government running for a short time as talks continue or try to attach more modest changes to the healthcare law. He could also simply abandon his most conservative colleagues and seek a bipartisan coalition with Democrats to continue to fund the government and prevent a shutdown, risking the ire of his majority.
In the afternoon, Boehner walked through the crowded Speaker’s Lobby off the House chamber for a smoke break on the balcony, but declined to answer reporters’ questions.
The gloomy prospect of an economic disruption that could be triggered by furloughed federal workers and closed museums, parks and government operations on Tuesday, the first day of the new fiscal year, was no match for the enthusiasm of GOP lawmakers filling the halls of the Capitol on Saturday.
“Did you hear all the hooting and hollering?” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), as rank-and-file lawmakers spilled out of a private strategy session. “The conference is pretty unified. Ready to fight on.”
A day earlier, it had seemed that the Republican Party’s far-right flank had exhausted its efforts after the Senate defeated its bid to halt federal funding for the healthcare law. Boehner remained largely silent and out of sight.
But the failed GOP effort in the Senate led by tea party Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) appeared only to energize the conservative flank in the House. Cruz held the Senate floor for more than 21 hours to denounce the law, also known as Obamacare, and encouraged his compatriots in the House to carry on the fight. More than 60 GOP lawmakers pledged their support of a one-year delay of the law.
With such overwhelming numbers, Boehner had few options but to embrace their strategy lest he loosen an already wobbly grip on his increasingly defiant GOP majority.
“He saw folks coalescing around a concept,” said Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), who led the effort to delay Obamacare in the House. “It’s one step at a time.”
Republicans see Tuesday’s launch of the healthcare law’s online marketplaces as one of their last chances to stop Obamacare, even though Senate Democrats appear united in their commitment to protect the president’s signature legislative accomplishment. The House bill would delay the marketplaces for a year.
Any delay in the healthcare law remains highly unlikely. Moreover, key aspects of the law are already underway.
The president said Friday that the marketplaces, where the uninsured will shop for policies, will open for business on Tuesday even if there is a federal shutdown. “That’s a done deal,” he said.
But the attempt to repeal the medical-device tax put some Democrats in a bind. More than 30 Democrats in the Senate and a similar number in the House have previously backed a repeal, including many from states with companies that make medical devices.
The 2.3% tax on devices other than such routine equipment as eyewear and hearing aids is expected to raise about $30 billion over 10 years to help pay for the Affordable Care Act.
However, key Democratic lawmakers said they would not agree to repeal the tax as part of the government funding bill. House
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a statement that the repeal effort was “a gift to the insurance companies by putting them back in charge of Americans’ healthcare.” Seventeen House Democrats voted for the repeal.
The difficulty Boehner had convincing Republicans to vote for any measure that does not fully end Obamacare was evident in the bill. It includes a provision that would allow employers that have religious or moral objections to contraception not to provide it on their company health insurance policies for employees.
Only one lawmaker, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), publicly urged his colleagues in the meeting of House Republicans to keep in mind the “big picture.” But others privately worried about the political fallout over what they feared was the inevitable outcome, and hoped a last-minute resolution would emerge on Monday. In the end, all but two Republicans voted for the delay.
“If this is part of a process, fine. I’ll vote for it,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). “But we can’t let the government shut down. If we do, we’ve just allowed people to hijack our party and the government.”