By Andrew Taylor
Republicans and Democrats blamed each other Monday as they took the federal government to the brink of a shutdown in an intractable budget dispute over President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
House Republicans excoriated Senate Democrats for taking the weekend off and resisting a House measure that would avert a shutdown, though with conditions: delaying further implementation of the health care law for a year and eliminating a tax on medical devices.
"The Senate decided not to work yesterday," Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said shortly after the House began its session — and just hours before a threatened shutdown at midnight. "Well my goodness, if there's such an emergency, where are they?"
"There's a pretty straightforward solution to this," Obama said at the White House. That's for "everybody to act responsibly and do what's right for the American people."
For the Senate, however, the GOP strings on the spending bill were nonstarters. The Senate returns shortly after 2 p.m. EDT and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his Democrats have made it clear that they want a straightforward bill to keep the government open. Reid plans votes to reject House GOP-crafted amendments to delay the 3-year-old health care law and eliminate a tax on medical devices, and he has the numbers to prevail.
"They cannot seem to stop themselves," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said of Republicans at a Capitol Hill news conference. "So we will stop them."
As the rhetoric heated up, so did the pressure for compromise. If that doesn't occur by midnight, Americans will soon see the impact: National parks would close. Many low-to-moderate incomes borrowers and first-time homebuyers seeking government-backed mortgages could face delays. Passport applications would be delayed.
One program that will begin on Tuesday — even with a shutdown — is enrollment in new health care exchanges for millions of Americans — a crucial part of Obama's health care law. That's because most of the program is paid from monies not subject to congressional appropriations.
But about 800,000 federal workers, many already reeling from the effect of the automatic budget cuts, would be forced off the job without pay. Some critical services such as patrolling the borders, inspecting meat and controlling air traffic would continue. Social Security benefits would be sent, and the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs for the elderly and poor would continue to pay doctors and hospitals.
The prospect of a government shutdown sent stocks sliding on Wall Street, which also is looking nervously at what a dysfunctional Washington would do mid-month on raising the nation's borrowing authority. Failure of the U.S. to act on the debt limit could unnerve world markets.
Tea party and conservative Republicans have forced Boehner and the House GOP leadership to couple the spending bill with efforts to dismantle the health care law. Democrats reject putting conditions on the temporary spending bill, saying that's akin to political ransom.
"I could sit here and say, 'Well, I'm not going to vote for a budget unless you agree to pass gun safety legislation.' That's not the way this place is supposed to operate," said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
Two moderate Republicans from Democratic-leaning states — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Rep. Charles Dent of Pennsylvania — signaled that they could back a straightforward spending bill.
"I would be supportive of it and I believe the votes are there in the House to pass it at that point," Dent said.
"We're not going to shut down the government," Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, a member of the House GOP leadership told reporters as he left a closed-door meeting of GOP leaders.
Since the last government shutdown 17 years ago, temporary funding bills known as continuing resolutions have been noncontroversial, with neither party willing to chance a shutdown to achieve legislative goals it couldn't otherwise win.
"You're going to shut down the government if you can't prevent millions of Americans from getting affordable care," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
A leader of the tea party Republicans, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, insisted the blame rests with Senate Democrats.
"The House has twice now voted to keep the government open. And if we have a shutdown, it will only be because when the Senate comes back, (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid says, 'I refuse even to talk,'" said Cruz, who led a 21-hour broadside against allowing the temporary funding bill to advance if stripped clean of a tea party-backed provision to derail Obamacare. The effort failed.
The battle started with a House vote to pass the short-term funding bill with a provision that would have eliminated the federal dollars needed to put Obama's health care overhaul into place. The Senate voted along party lines to strip that out and sent the measure back to the House.
The latest House bill, passed early Sunday by a near party-line vote of 231-192, sent back to the Senate two major changes: a one-year delay of key provisions of the health insurance law and repeal of a new tax on medical devices that partially funds it. The steps still go too far for the White House and its Democratic allies.
A House GOP leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, said Sunday that the House "will have a few other options" for the Senate to consider, though he did not specify them. "The House will get back together in enough time, send another provision not to shut the government down, but to fund it," he said.
He suggested that House Republicans would try blocking a mandate that individuals buy health insurance or face a tax penalty, saying there might be some Democratic support in the Senate for that.
On the other hand, Democrats said the GOP's bravado may fade as the deadline to avert a shutdown nears.
Asked whether he could vote for a "clean" temporary funding bill, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said he couldn't. But he added, "I think there's enough people in the Republican Party who are willing to do that. And I think that's what you're going to see."