Much theater, little action as Congress ponders government shutdown
WASHINGTON -- With the federal government heading toward a possible shutdown Oct. 1, one might expect Congress to be racing the clock to avert that outcome.
Congress tends to resolve tough problems only at the final hour, when all other avenues have narrowed.
This latest round of brinkmanship, led by tea party Republicans trying to block President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, appears to be on that same track. By Monday afternoon, the tea party effort appeared to be losing ground among Senate Republicans, but the schedule showed no sign of speeding up.
The tea party conservatives have vowed to block any effort to provide money for federal agencies after the end of the current budget year unless Obama agrees to a measure that would stop his signature healthcare law from going into effect. Obama has rejected that idea.
Any hoped for resolution to the drama has been pushed off until at least next Monday, hours before the deadline to keep the government funded into the new federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” said Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.), among the House Republicans fighting to stop the healthcare law. “We’re looking in all of this to maximize our leverage to get the things we’re looking for.”
Here’s a quick guide to the week ahead:
Monday – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed a procedural motion to begin debate on the bill passed by the House last week that would keep the government running through Dec. 15 but eliminate money to implement the healthcare law.
Democrats, with the majority in the Senate, have enough votes to strip the provision that would “defund” the health law. To stop them from doing that, tea party Republicans have promised a filibuster, putting them in the odd parliamentary position of trying to block debate on a bill that they support.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other tea party senators have pushed their GOP colleagues to vote against proceeding with the bill. They argue that once the process begins, Republican hopes of gutting the healthcare law will be overcome by the Democrats’ ability to protect it. It is unclear how many Republicans will follow their lead. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky announced Monday that he would oppose the filibuster.
Filibusters take time -- that’s the whole point of doing them. So the first key vote would not come until Wednesday at the earliest.
Tuesday – A week before the possible government shutdown, senators will begin returning to Washington, with lunch meetings scheduled for the afternoon as Reid and the Republican minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) meet with party caucuses to discuss strategy.
Wednesday – The first likely Senate vote. Under Senate rules, a supermajority of 60 votes would be needed to shut off the filibuster -- a move known as cloture -- and proceed with the bill. The Democratic caucus counts 54 senators, so at least six Republicans would need to vote against Cruz to move ahead. Cruz and his allies hope some Democrats, particularly those up for reelection from conservative states, might side with them although so far, no Democrats have said they would do so.
If cloture passes, which seems likely, debate can continue for up to 30 more hours.
House lawmakers also plan to begin returning to Washington.
Thursday – House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is expected to assemble the GOP caucus in the Capitol basement for a closed-door strategy session in the morning. Boehner hopes to persuade the tea party wing of the Republican caucus to move away from the current bill to cut off money for the health law and, instead, to focus on the next budget fight -- later in October, over the administration’s request to raise the debt ceiling to continue paying the government’s bills.
Assuming cloture passes sometime on Wednesday, the Senate would vote late Thursday to proceed with the bill. That requires a simple majority, which Reid would have, of 51 senators (or 50 with Vice President Joe Biden breaking a tie). Once debate on the bill starts, Cruz would launch a second filibuster, meaning Reid would have to file a new cloture motion that could not be voted on until Saturday.
Friday – If Boehner gets his way, the House could begin debating a debt ceiling bill; meanwhile, the Senate likely will continue to be engaged in a filibuster.
Saturday – The Senate likely will face another key vote -- this time, on ending debate over the bill, itself. Once again, Reid would have to find 60 votes. Tea party conservatives are expected to press hard on fellow Republicans not to yield. If cloture passes, that means another 30 hours of debate.
Sunday – If 60 members have agreed to stop the filibuster, the Senate, having spent the week in procedural wrangles, would take up a Democratic measure to restore money for implementing the health law. Since that would need only a simple majority, the measure would pass, and the Senate would then approve the final bill and send it back to the House.
Then what? Boehner’s next move is unknown. Some Republicans believe he would simply allow the amended legislation to come to the floor where it could pass with support from most Democrats and some Republicans, even though many rank-and-file Republicans would be opposed.
Other Republicans say Boehner will have no choice but to try to amend the bill in the House with another, perhaps more modest, attempt to curtail the healthcare law. That would bounce the package back to the Senate with hours to go before the possible government shutdown.
Another option for Boehner would be simply to allow government agencies to close their doors and see what happens. The current authority to spend money would run out at midnight on Sept. 30. Officials say, however, that if Congress passed a money bill sometime during the day on Oct. 1, federal operations would not be interrupted.
The schedule next week for Congress is yet to be determined.
[Updated at 3:37 p.m. Sept. 23: This post has been updated with Monday’s events, including Sen. Mitch McConnell’s announcement that he would oppose the GOP filibuster.]
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