The Senate moved Wednesday to take up a House-passed temporary spending bill that defunds President Obama’s health-care law, despite Sen. Ted Cruz’s more than 21-hour attempt to delay the legislation.
Shortly after 1 p.m., the funding bill passed its first procedural hurdle in the Senate, which voted unanimously to start debating the House version of a goverment funding measure. The Senate now has 30 hours of debate time scheduled on the House bill.
The vote followed a marathon attack by Cruz (R-Texas) on the Affordable Care Act, in which Cruz commanded teh Senate floor for more than 21 hours — from Tuesday afternoon to noon on Wednesday.
After Cruz ended his talkathon, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) blasted the freshman senator from Texas for suggesting during his speech that Republican lawmakers had not fought hard enough to stop the health-care law before Congress passed it in March 2010. McCain said he “campaigned all over America” last year to “repeal and replace Obamacare.” But “much to my dismay,” he said, “the people spoke . . . and they reelected the president of the United States,” who had campaigned on going ahead with the law.
McCain also vigorously objected to Cruz’s comparison of “pundits” who say that Obamacare cannot be defunded to politicians who appeased Nazi Germany before World War II.
“I resoundingly reject that allegation,” McCain said. He said Cruz had told him that he was not comparing U.S. legislators to Nazi appeasers, but McCain called that “a difference without a distinction” and said he still objects to Cruz’s language.
Cruz took the floor at 2:41 p.m. Tuesday, promising to speak “until I am no longer able to stand.” He proceeded to talk away, holding forth with occasional assistance from a handful of Republican colleagues, who gave him breaks from speaking by asking lengthy questions, although Cruz was still required to remain on his feet on the Senate floor, with no food or bathroom breaks.
The end of the speech-making, a filibuster in all but name, followed an exchange late Wednesday morning in which Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) informed Cruz that under Senate rules, he could continue speaking until 1 p.m. But Cruz opted to yield the floor at noon, when the Senate formally began a new legislative day with a prayer.
After the procedural vote, the senators launched a debate that centered on their competing visions of the health-care law, with Republicans demanding its repeal and Democrats defending its accomplishments to day.
“Obamacare is just as bad as many of us said it would be, and it’s about to get a lot worse,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “The train is picking up speed, and there’s a bridge out ahead. . . . Basically this law is a complete mess.”
He urged Democrats to “get on the same page with the American people,” who he claimed “overwhelmingly oppose this law.”
Democrats countered that elections are the ultimate polls and that voters faced a clear choice last year between presidential candidates on opposite sides of the issue. Voters rejected the one — GOP candidate Mitt Romney — who had campaigned on acting to repeal Obamacare as his first order of business, Democrats said.
Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) noted that in his own Senate race in Virginia, he had defeated a candidate who favored repeal.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) charged that Republicans were risking a government shutdown to indulge their “obsession” with the health-care law. “The good news is that obsessive-compulsive disorder is covered under Obamacare,” he said.
With Senate passage all but certain on a bill that will include funding for the health-care law, Cruz’s controversial talkathon had the effect of giving House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his colleagues only a few hours to respond with a different version of the legislation.
Both houses of Congress must reach agreement on funding legislation by Monday night to prevent most federal agencies from closing on Tuesday. Meanwhile, a similarly contentious debate is simmering over raising the federal debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned Wednesday that the nation will exhaust its emergency borrowing capacity no later than Oct. 17.
The Cruz talkathon was the latest example of the increasingly stark division among Republicans, both on Capitol Hill and nationally. The Texas newcomer, just 42 and nine months into his first term in office, is carrying the banner for conservatives who urge a take-no-prisoners approach in confronting the president, even if it means shuttering the government.
But the move angered senior Republicans, who complained that Cruz and the other junior senators pushing this strategy did not understand the wounds the GOP suffered during the mid-1990s shutdown battles with President Bill Clinton. Back then, the party controlled both the House and Senate, a luxury compared with its tenuous majority in the House today.
William Branigin, Rosalind Helderman and Jeff Simon contributed to this report.