WASHINGTON—The Democratic-led Senate voted Friday to fund the federal government through mid-November, but only after it stripped a provision to defund Obamacare that the Republican-led House had previously approved.
The altered stopgap spending measure now goes back to the House, where friction exists between Republican leaders and the conservative wing of the party over what to do next. Congress has just a few more days to reach an agreement it can send to President Barack Obama before a government shutdown commences on Tuesday, Oct. 1.
Senators voted 54 to 44—a straight party-line vote—to include funding for the controversial healthcare law that also starts on Tuesday. When the House passed its version of the spending bill last week, it inserted language to take money away from Obamacare. But Democrats in the Senate balked at the move, and Tea Party senators, led by freshman Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, failed to get enough GOP support to block the Senate bill by filibustering.
Before striking the Obamacare defunding element and passing the overall spending measure, 25 Senate Republicans joined all 54 Senate Democrats to end debate on the bill and move toward final passage. Earlier in the week Cruz had given a marathon speech on the Senate floor, exceeding 21 hours, trying to persuade lawmakers that the best way to stop Obamacare was to tie attempts to defund it to the must-pass legislation to keep the government running.
Senate Republicans who opposed Cruz argued that the GOP would get blamed for any dire aftereffects of a government shutdown.
“The only time you shut down the government is when you shut it down and refuse to open it until you accomplish what you want. But we’ll fold like hotcakes,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told reporters Friday. “You do not take a hostage you are not going to for sure shoot. And we will not for sure shooting this hostage.”
But Cruz is now doubling down on his efforts by reaching to the other side of the U.S. Capitol to the House.
“Today’s vote by Sen. Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats to fully fund Obamacare was yet the latest example of Washington not listening to the people,” Cruz said. “But this fight continues. … The House showed remarkable courage voting to defund Obamacare, and I hope and believe that the House will stand by their resolve and continue to lead the effort to stop the Obamacare train wreck.”
With time ticking toward midnight Monday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and his allies in the GOP leadership still are debating how they will handle a Senate bill that is now absent any measure to defund Obamacare. Republican leadership in the House has floated the idea of approving the measure to keep the government funded while concentrating on the pending debt-ceiling debate as the best way to leverage some concessions from Democrats on Obamacare. The government will reach its borrowing limit by the middle of October and will need congressional action to avoid defaulting on its loans. Under this strategy, House Republicans would agree to suspend the debt ceiling through the 2014 elections as long as Democrats agree to a one-year delay for Obamacare and for overhauls in the federal tax code.
But it is clear that Republicans have yet to coalesce around a central plan. Some are touting a funding bill to keep the government open for 10 days so they will have more time to craft a longer agreement. Other lawmakers are arguing for an amendment that would remove health insurance subsidies for members of Congress and their staffers, forcing them onto the health insurance exchanges created by Obamacare.
Cruz argues that House Republicans should not punt on the current government-funding debate. He has met with House conservatives this week urging them to keep Obamacare defunding tied to the resolution to fund the government and not delay the fight until next month’s debt-ceiling debate. This push to keep up the current fight puts Cruz at odds with many establishment Republicans in Washington while making him a hero for many outside groups of fiscal conservatives. Already at least one group, FreedomWorks, has sent out a fundraising email in the aftermath of Friday’s Senate votes: “Patriot, we should have won. Obama’s Republican allies in the Senate betrayed you,” referring to the GOP senators who agreed to cut off debate and move to a final vote.
Democrats and the media have seized upon the infighting among Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Friday called the fiscal conservative wing of the Republican Party “modern day anarchists,” “adolescents,” and the “weird caucus.”
Meanwhile, Dan Pfeiffer, a top advisor to Obama, basically called them terrorists when he said, “What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest.”
During a Friday afternoon news conference, the president accused Republicans of “political grandstanding,” saying that what they really care about is “appeasing the Tea Party.”
All the political maneuverings and name-calling is distracting attention away from Obamacare’s clunky rollout. This week the government announced more delays to the program: Small businesses and Spanish-language health insurance enrollments will not be ready to start on time due to technical glitches. And the White House continues to ignore growing evidence that Obamacare already is causing economic harm: Told about a security company that is ending its health insurance for its 55,000 employees, White House spokesman Jay Carney replied, “That’s an anecdote.” In addition, an analysis published this week by the Charlotte Lozier Institute suggests that the number of abortions subsidized due to Obamacare could be run between 71,000 and 111,500 per year.
“On party lines, Obamacare will continue,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told reporters on Friday. “Americans are going to have to judge whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”