U.S. House Republicans on Friday made the first move in the stare-down over how to keep the government running past the end of the month, passing a bill to strip funding from the Affordable Care Act while maintaining spending levels into December.
Spurred on by the most conservative corner of their caucus, rallied by Ranger Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, House leaders sent a package attacking the law known as Obamacare to the Senate, where Democrats have said they will not pass it.
President Barack Obama also has vowed a veto to protect his largest domestic achievement as its implementation begins in earnest.
But House Republicans said not to count them out, as they fight to “save” America from the health care law before enrollment on the state-based health insurance exchanges begins Oct. 1.
“Our message to the United States Senate is real simple: The American people don’t want the government shut down, and they don’t want Obamacare,” House Speaker John Boehner said after Friday’s vote, with most of his caucus cheering him on. “The House has listened to the American people, now it’s time for the United States Senate to listen to them as well.”
Georgia’s House members split on party lines, as did the House for the most part, in the 230-189 vote.
“This isn’t the way folks expect Congress to operate, and today’s bill seriously jeopardizes the future of the American economy,” said U.S. Rep. John Barrow, a moderate Augusta Democrat who occasionally sides with Republicans. “I didn’t support this bill, and I urge my colleagues to develop a practical proposal to avoid a government shutdown.”
Government funding expires after Sept. 30, so if Congress and the president cannot agree on a deal, the government would go into a partial shutdown for the first time since 1996. National parks would close and agencies would operate with a skeleton crew, but services deemed “essential” – Social Security checks, troop payments, air traffic control – would continue.
A much more disruptive deadline looms sometime in late October or early November: the limit on how much money the government can borrow. The House could move as soon as next week on a package that would increase what’s known as the debt ceiling, in exchange for a one-year delay of the health care law, approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other GOP priorities.
A debt ceiling breach would be unprecedented and bring up painful questions of how to prioritize payments, while threatening the federal government’s credit rating.
The Senate is set to take up the spending bill next week, and Majority Leader Harry Reid has signaled he will send it back to the House with the Affordable Care Act intact. He would need 60 votes to bring up the House bill, which Republicans like, but only 51 to swap in his preferred version. Democrats control 54 Senate votes.
It’s unclear what Boehner’s next move would be, but if it does not include delaying or denying funding to the health care law, he almost certainly would rely on Democrats for passage.
The conservative wing of Boehner’s caucus has made it clear that crippling the Affordable Care Act is the price for their votes on what is known as a “continuing resolution.” Boehner initially proposed a mechanism that allowed the House to vote to defund the law, while the Senate could strip it out and send the bill to the president.
That was not good enough for his right flank. Graves attracted more than 70 colleagues – including most of the Georgia GOP delegation – to support his alternative, which would extend government funding for a year while delaying the health law for a year. That bloc was more than big enough to kill leadership’s initial plan, and this week House leaders changed course.
“The American people spoke up through the August recess and have been very outspoken in the last few weeks,” Graves said Wednesday morning, after leadership announced it was moving his way. “And leadership has been very receptive to hearing the message from the members and then making adjustments as necessary.”
Others fear Republicans are adjusting themselves into a tactical corner. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, said he preferred the first Boehner plan, so the Senate could vote on defunding Obamacare without tying it to a shutdown.
Barring a reversal from several moderate Democrats, there are not enough votes to defund, Isakson said. And there are certainly not enough votes to reverse a presidential veto.
“The best thing to do in public life is under-promise and over-deliver,” Isakson said. “The worst thing to do is over-promise and under-deliver.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, an engine behind the “defund Obamacare” movement, provoked some backlash from the House GOP when he also acknowledged a defund vote would lose in the Senate. On Friday, House members heaped the pressure on the other chamber as they passed their bill.
U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, a Lawrenceville Republican, noted that individual senators can use all sorts of procedural tricks to hold up a bill that does not defund the health law.
“This was a project that began with some in the Senate,” Woodall said. “And if some in the Senate can’t get it over the finish line, then I wouldn’t know where to go next.”
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