Senate rejects House terms on budget as shutdown nears
WASHINGTON —The Senate on Monday quickly rejected a House proposal to fund the government only if Democrats agreed to delay or undo parts of the 2010 health law as House Republicans gathered in the Capitol to plot their response in the escalating budget fight.
Within minutes of convening just after 2 p.m., the Senate on a 54-46 vote followed through on Democratic threats to strip the health care provisions from a measure passed by the House early Sunday morning and send it back to the House.
But House Republicans showed no sign of backing down, signaling a readiness to shut down the federal government over the health law.
Republican members of the House gathered in a conference room in a basement of the Capitol to discuss strategy after the Senate rejected demands to delay implementation of the health care law for a year and repeal a tax on medical devices that helps pay for the law’s expansion of coverage to the uninsured.
The confrontation — which threatens to close federal offices and facilities, idling thousands of workers around the country — stems from an unusual push by Republicans to undo a law that has been on the books for three years, through a presidential election, and that the Supreme Court largely upheld in 2012. A major part of the law is set to take effect Tuesday: the opening of insurance exchanges, where people without health insurance will be able to obtain coverage.
Absent a last-minute agreement by the two parties, parts of the federal government that President Barack Obama does not deem essential will shut down at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday.
Republicans argue that the Obama administration has itself delayed elements of the law. They say that at a minimum it should be postponed for a year to eliminate what they see as bureaucratic problems and harmful consequences for businesses and individuals. Republicans also say they have compromised by retreating from their insistence that all money be stripped from the health law.
Democrats say that Republicans are being driven by the most extreme elements of their party to use the federal budget to extract concessions on health care that they could not win through the traditional legislative process. They say that the push to halt the health care law just as Americans will be able to sign up for coverage is outrageous, and that a governmentwide shutdown will threaten the nation’s slow economic recovery and cause widespread and unnecessary disruptions for the public.
Democrats have won support from some Senate Republicans, who see a shutdown as damaging to their party.
“I still hold up a small hope that the Republicans will come to their senses, that the mainstream Republicans will say ‘enough already,’” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC on Monday, urging the House Republican leadership to put a spending bill without policy prescriptions to a vote on the floor. “The question is, does Speaker Boehner need to engage in something like the ancient practice of sacrifice, this time to the right-wing gods? Do we have to sacrifice the economy, help for millions of middle-class people?”
On the House floor Monday, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio showed no signs of backing down, arguing that the health care law “is not ready for prime time.”
“The House has done its work,” he said. “We passed a bill on Saturday night — sent it to the United States Senate — that would delay Obamacare for one year, and would eliminate permanently the medical device tax that is costing us tens of thousands of jobs that are being shipped overseas.”
Boehner criticized the Senate for not working over the weekend, a move by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, to run down the clock and leave House Republicans with undesirable options before the government shuts down after midnight: to either pass a spending bill without policy prescriptions to keep the government financed and open, or to double down on their hard-line stance and possibly be blamed for a shutdown.
“Senate decided not to work yesterday,” Boehner continued. “Well, my goodness, if there’s such an emergency, where are they? It’s time for the Senate to listen to the American people, just like the House has listened to the American people, and to pass a one-year delay of Obamacare and a permanent repeal of the medical device tax.”
Reid, D-Nev., has repeatedly said that Senate Democrats plan to table portions of the House spending bill, including provisions to delay the health care law by one year, repeal a medical device tax and allow businesses to opt out of contraception coverage for their employees.
Boehner had hoped to persuade the unruly conservative members of his conference to save the fight to defund the health care law until a later debate on the debt ceiling, in which he believes Republicans hold more leverage and Obama would be forced to negotiate. But House Republicans were ecstatic Saturday when Boehner and his leadership team in a closed-door meeting presented their plan to allow Republicans to use the stopgap spending measure to delay the full effect of the Affordable Care Act.
On Sunday, House Republicans had already started trying to assign blame, with more than a dozen members holding a news conference on the steps of the Capitol to complain that the Senate had refused to work over the weekend.
“Now today, we see the Senate doors are shut. They’re locked,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. “Sen. Harry Reid says it is ‘inevitable’ that the government is going to shut down. Well, if the Senate doesn’t act, it may be inevitable. But we’re here to say that the Senate needs to act. Why are they waiting? Why aren’t those doors open?”
Speaking on CNBC on Monday morning, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., echoed her party’s view that it is Senate Democrats and Obama, not House Republicans, who are forcing a possible government shutdown.
“What we want to do is solve the problem, and we’ve been trying to do it, and we’re disappointed that the Senate decided that they didn’t want to stay here and work,” Blackburn said. “We’ve been trying to solve the problem. We’re not the ones that want a shutdown.”
As legislators try to stave off a shutdown, a few options — albeit unlikely ones — have emerged.
House Republicans could pass a short-term measure to finance the government that does not include any of their health care delays, in order to buy more time to come up with another plan. Or they could try to force Reid to accept a repeal of the tax on medical devices — a step that many Democrats also support — in exchange for the House’s not sending over a bill with new language that would require members of Congress and their staffs, as well as White House staff members, to buy their health insurance on the new exchanges, without any government subsidies.
Copyright The New York Times News Service.
PHOTO: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va. walks to a House Republican Conference meeting to discuss the ongoing budget fight, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Republican unity showed unmistakable signs of fraying Monday as Democrats and the White House vowed to reject tea party-driven demands to delay the nation's health care overhaul as the price for averting a partial government shutdown at midnight. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)