Government shutdown moves closer to reality as GOP goes after Obamacare funding

The Obamacare debate is holding up budget debates in the House and Senate, and that could lead to a government shutdown. Ed O’Keefe explains. (The Washington Post)

The threat of a government shutdown intensified Tuesday as House Republican leaders moved toward stripping funding from President Obama’s landmark health-care initiative and setting up a stalemate with the Democratic Senate.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had hoped to keep the government open past Sept. 30 with relatively little fuss. But roughly 40 conservatives revolted. After a strategy session Tuesday, Boehner and his leadership team were being pushed into a more confrontational strategy that would fund the government into the new fiscal year only if Democrats agreed to undermine Obama’s signature legislative achievement.

Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have ruled that out, leaving the parties hurtling toward an apparent impasse.

In less than two weeks — with the nation at war and authorities investigating a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard — every federal agency from the Pentagon to the FBI is due to shut down unless Congress can reach an agreement. A shutdown would not only disrupt critical government services but also whip up a panic just as lawmakers confront the next major deadline on their fall calendar: the need to raise the $16.7 trillion federal debt limit.

Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf said Tuesday that the Treasury Department is likely to run out of cash to pay its bills “sometime between late October and mid-November,” confirming independent estimates. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has so far been vague about that deadline, telling Congress only that he would exhaust his ability to juggle the books by mid-October.

U.S. debt outlook is still dark.

Despite the risk of widespread economic turmoil, political leaders have yet to begin talks to resolve the impasse. Obama has repeatedly said he would not negotiate over the debt limit, arguing that it is the responsibility of Congress to make sure the Treasury can pay bills incurred by past Congresses. Last month, the White House and a group of Senate Republicans agreed to suspend discussions about a broader budget deal.

Meanwhile, both Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have said it’s up to the House to make the first move to keep the government open. Reid on Tuesday called on Boehner to resist “this relentless obstruction . . . led and directed by the tea party.”

“None of the Republicans are willing to stand up to these anarchists,” Reid told reporters. Of the law known as Obamacare, he added: “They’re obsessed with a bill that passed four years ago, a bill that was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. They can’t get over that.”

Even many Republicans have expressed frustration with the right wing’s fixation on the health-care law, which is intended to make insurance affordable to millions of additional Americans. People are due to begin signing up with new state-run insurance exchanges Oct. 1 and will be eligible for new federal subsidies in 2014.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) and a band of House conservatives are leading the charge to block implementation of the law, along with outside groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth. On Tuesday, the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which is influential in the GOP, urged them to stand down.

“The problem is that Mr. Obama is never, ever going to unwind his signature legacy project of national health care. Ideology aside, it would end his Presidency politically,” the paper wrote. It warned that voters may well blame Republicans for a shutdown given that “the repeal-or-bust crowd provoked the confrontation.”

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a strong supporter of the defund strategy, dismissed the criticism, which has also come from senior Republican lawmakers and strategists.

“All that really matters is what my district wants,” Massie said. “And my district is overwhelmingly in favor of my position.”

Upon returning to Washington after a long weekend at home, Boehner and his leadership team met for an hour Tuesday afternoon in the Capitol. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement that no decisions about strategy “have been made, or will be made, until House Republican members meet and talk tomorrow” morning.

But other participants in the meeting said it became clear that a government-funding plan unveiled last week by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), which would have avoided a showdown over Obamacare, could not rally enough GOP votes.

“It was not [well] received in the conference,” said Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.), who attended Tuesday’s meeting representing the massive freshman class of Republicans elected in 2010. Instead, Southerland said, GOP leaders were leaning toward satisfying their right wing, fully aware that such a move would invite rejection in the Senate.

The Senate, then, would be likely to respond with its own funding plan that jettisoned the anti-Obamacare provisions. Senate Democrats could also make other changes, such as rolling back some of the automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, that Republicans view as their most significant recent legislative achievement.

That would leave the House to make an eleventh-hour decision: Swallow the Senate’s changes or shut the government down.

“I wouldn’t stow away our ping-pong paddles,” Southerland quipped grimly.

As the wrangling continued, people in both parties worried that House Republicans would prove unable to unite around any strategy, leaving the nation’s fiscal well-being at risk.

Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.
Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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