WASHINGTON — Congress moved the nation closer to a government shutdown on Tuesday as House Republicans voted early Sunday 231-192 to advance a stopgap spending measure to delay implementation of President Obama's health care law for one year.
"We will do our job and send this bill over, and then it's up to the Senate to pass it and stop a government shutdown," House GOP leaders said in a joint statement.
The House voted just past midnight ET Saturday following a day of vigorous debate over the Affordable Care Act, which begins open enrollment on Oct. 1.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., countered that the public had litigated the healthcare law in 2012 with the re-election of Obama and accused Republicans of "rampant irresponsibility" that increased the prospects of an Oct. 1 shutdown.
"By the way, we won this debate in the election," Hoyer said on the House floor, "But (Republicans) refuse to accept the results of the election."
The House also voted 248-174 to repeal a 2.3% tax on medical devices enacted to help pay for implementation of the law.
The House then voted unanimously on a separate measure to ensure that the U.S. military continues to get paid if the government shuts down. Because no annual spending bills have been enacted, a shutdown would stop the flow of paychecks to troops.
Members of Congress, however, would continue to be paid if a shutdown occurs.
But the House GOP amendments affecting the Affordable Care Act face certain defeat in the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will not support any bill that dismantles the law. Obama also said he would veto any such bill in the unlikely event it reaches his desk.
In a statement, Reid called the House's action "pointless" and reiterated that the Senate will reject the GOP's latest version of the stopgap bill.
"After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at square one: Republicans must decide whether to pass the Senate's clean (bill), or force a Republican government shutdown," Reid said.
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White House spokesman Jay Carney called the plan "reckless and irresponsible" and said, "Any member of the Republican Party who votes for this bill is voting for a shutdown."
The House also voted to extend the length of the funding resolution by one month to Dec. 15 from Nov. 15, and included a controversial "conscience clause" that would delay a requirement under the health care law that employers provide health insurance that covers contraceptives for women.
House Republicans expressed confidence that the latest strategy could hold more promise in the Senate than their original effort to defund the health care law. "I think there are some senators over there who may be in cycle that secretly want a one-year delay and we just got to find the right mix that enables them to justify that vote," said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C.
However, during Senate votes this week, all 54 Senate Democrats stuck together to strip out language defunding the law. Republicans would need 14 Senate Democrats to break party ranks to side with all 46 Senate Republicans, and there is no indication those votes exist. Even if they did, the president has said he would veto any legislation to undermine the law.
House Republicans' maneuvering is unlikely to force the tough political votes on Senate Democrats they are seeking. Reid can use Senate procedures to table the two amendments in one vote, requiring only a 51-vote majority, on Monday. If that occurs--as expected--the stopgap bill remains in the House, increasing pressure on Boehner to allow an up-or-down vote on the floor to avoid the shutdown.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said Democrats stand ready to provide votes to help moderate Republicans pass the Senate-passed stopgap bill. However, Boehner would likely lose most of his lawmakers and faces internal party pressures to hold firm against the health care law.
Reid warned Republicans that the only way to avoid a shutdown was to approve the Senate bill. "This is it. Time is gone. Our rules are different than the House," he said Friday. The Senate is not in session this weekend.
"We're getting closer to a shutdown, but if the Senate acts as quick as its capable we can avoid that. Let's see what they send back to us," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., on Saturday, "We're working the process the way we're supposed to work it."
Further fueling fears of a shutdown was Reid's acknowledgment that House and Senate leaders are not communicating. In previous budget clashes, behind-the-scenes negotiations were underway. "We've made it very clear that the only way to solve this problem is just accept what we've done, just accept it," he said.
Boehner's office said Friday that they had not heard from Obama all week.
Most of the public would not feel the effects of a shutdown immediately. Government operations considered essential, like mail delivery, air-traffic control, and Social Security and Medicare, would continue unabated, but national parks and museums would close. Certain government employees would not get paid, but they would receive back pay when the government reopens. A short-term shutdown is unlikely to cause much long-term economic damage unless it drags on longer.
House Republicans are also working separately to put together a legislative package tied to an impending vote to raise the debt ceiling, the nation's borrowing limit, that will hit Oct. 17, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. The bill would suspend the debt ceiling through the 2014 elections in exchange for a one-year delay of implementation of the health care law and instructions on how to overhaul the federal tax code without raising additional revenue.
The package includes a grab bag of perennially popular GOP legislation that is unpalatable to Democrats, such as construction of a new oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, and increasing means testing for Medicaid recipients.
The package has also divided House Republicans for a number of reasons, forcing leaders to delay initial plans to vote on the package this weekend. Many lawmakers want to resolve the stopgap spending bill first, while others are concerned that the package does not include enough long-term deficit reduction.
Obama has maintained that he will veto any legislation that seeks to delay or defund his signature domestic achievement, and Democrats have vowed not to negotiate over the debt ceiling. There is no precedent for a U.S. debt limit default, but there is consensus that it could have sweeping, negative consequences for the U.S. economy.