As President Obama huddled in a basement lecture hall with House Republicans Wednesday afternoon as part of a much ballyhooed effort to reach out to the GOP, the limits of a possible partisan detente were on display at the other end of the Capitol.
There, on the Senate floor, Republicans forced a vote on defunding the Affordable Care Act, marking the 35th time congressional Republicans have sought to kill funding for the signature legislative achievement of Obama’s first term.
The proposal— designed as an amendment to a measure that will fund the government and avoid a shutdown at the end of this month — died on a 45 to 52 vote.
That was the expected outcome in a chamber where Democrats outnumber Republicans. But the point of the exercise was less about passing the proposal than it was an intended as a vivid display Republicans’ objection to implementation of the health-care overhaul.
“There’s no way to fix this thing. It needs to be pulled out by its roots,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told colleagues.
The vote served as an illustration of Washington’s continued intractable divide between the parties, even as Obama opens new talks on bipartisan efforts to reduce the nation’s debt and deficits.
The amendment was authored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the combative freshman who insisted the repeal of the health-care law is key to injecting growth into the economy and called it the most the pressing matter facing the nation. His amendment would have blocked any money from being spent to implement the complex new law.
Democrats said the Republican effort showed the GOP is mired in refighting past battles and has failed to accept the results of Obama’s November reelection.
“The presidential candidate of the Republican Party who said he wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he lost,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “President Obama, who was the president who initiated this and signed it into law, he won. I think quite convincingly. So the American people basically have said, it’s time to move on.”
The vote was the first of an expected bevy of amendments the Senate will consider Wednesday and Thursday on the funding bill.
Additional votes could touch on other hot-button issues, including outlining new rules for military drone use and proposals to cut off foreign aide to the fledging Egyptian government over human rights abuses.
The debate over the continuing resolution, which outlines spending for the next six months, is being conducted parallel to a much broader debate over taxes and spending taking place this week, as the parties unveil competing budget blueprints to guide spending for decades to come.
The spending plan released Tuesday by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, also proposes eliminating funding for the health-care act.
Although the parties are deeply split over their budgets — the main topic of conversation between Obama and House Republicans in their closed-door meeting Wednesday — leaders in both parties have expressed optimism that they will be able to move the more narrow continuing resolution through both chambers fairly smoothly by the end of next week, when Congress is scheduled to leave Washington for a two-week recess.
They must adopt a bill appropriating funding for government agencies by March 27 or the government will shut down.
They have agreed on the potentially most contentious issue that had threatened to divide them: Senate Democrats agreed to lock in the $85 billion across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, as Republicans had insisted.
House Republicans adopted their own version of the bill last week that cemented the sequester cuts.
Still to be resolved over the next week is whether to use the measure merely to extend the funding priorities in place since the start of the year or to adopt new spending targets for some programs and agencies, which would blunt the impact of the sequester on critical programs.
The House measure included a full-scale rewrite of appropriations priorities only for the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Senate Democrats would like to do the same for other areas of government, including agriculture, commerce, science and justice.
Any funding increases for individual agencies, however, would have to be offset with cuts elsewhere.
Overall, leaders in the House and Senate have agreed spending on government agencies will total $982 billion for the year, a figure that reflects the sequester’s cuts.
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