House Leaves U.S. on Brink of Shutdown
By JONATHAN WEISMAN and JEREMY W. PETERS
WASHINGTON — The federal government on Saturday barreled toward its first shutdown in 17 years after House Republicans, choosing a hard line, demanded a one-year delay of President Obama’s health care law and the repeal of a tax to pay for the law before approving any funds to keep the government running.
Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting Saturday unified and confident that they had the votes to delay the health care law and eliminate a tax on medical devices that partly pays for it. But before the House had even voted, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said that when the Senate reconvened on Monday it would strip out both provisions.
The House’s action all but assured that large parts of the government would be shuttered as of 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday. More than 800,000 federal workers deemed nonessential faced furloughs; millions more could be working without paychecks.
A separate House Republican bill would also ensure that military personnel continued to be paid in the event of a government shutdown, an acknowledgment that a shutdown was likely. The health law delay and the troop funding bill were set for House passage Saturday.
“The American people don’t want a government shutdown, and they don’t want Obamacare,” House Republican leaders said in a statement. “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.”
Representative Darrell Issa, a powerful Republican committee chairman who is close to the leadership but has sided with those who want to gut the health care law, flashed anger when asked what would happen when the Senate rejected the House’s offer.
“How dare you presume a failure?” he snapped. “We continue to believe there’s an opportunity for sensible compromise and I will not accept from anybody the assumption of failure.”
But Mr. Reid made it clear that failure was inevitable. “After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at Square 1,” he said. “We continue to be willing to debate these issues in a calm and rational atmosphere. But the American people will not be extorted by Tea Party anarchists.”
In fact, many House Republicans acknowledged that they expected the Senate to reject the House’s provisions, making a shutdown all but assured. House Republicans were warned repeatedly that Senate Democrats would not accept any changes to the health care law.
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio faced a critical decision this weekend: Accept a bill passed by the Senate on Friday to keep the government funded and the health care law intact and risk a conservative revolt that could threaten his speakership, or make one more effort to undermine the president’s signature domestic initiative and hope that a shutdown would not do serious political harm to his party.
With no guarantee that Democrats would help him, he chose the shutdown option. The House’s unruly conservatives had more than enough votes to defeat a spending bill that would not do significant damage to the health care law, unless Democrats were willing to bail out the speaker. And Democrats showed little inclination to alleviate the Republicans’ intraparty warfare.
“The federal government has shut down 17 times before, sometimes when the Democrats were in control, sometimes with divided government,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina. “What are we doing on our side of the aisle? We’re fighting for the American people.”
Veteran House Republicans say there is still one plausible way to avoid a shutdown. The Senate could take up the House spending bill, strip out the one-year health care delay and accept the medical device tax repeal as a face-saving victory for Republicans. The tax, worth $30 billion over 10 years, has ardent opponents among Democrats as well. Its repeal would not prevent the law from going into effect. Consumers can begin signing up for insurance plans under the law beginning on Tuesday.
Mr. Reid has already said he would not accept even that measure as a condition to keep the government operating. Even if he did, a single senator could slow action well past the Sept. 30 shutdown deadline, and Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, has said he would accept nothing short of a one-year delay.
A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide said the Senate would strip both health care provisions out of the bill and send it back to the House once again clean of policy prescriptions.
“By pandering to the Tea Party minority and trying to delay the benefits of health care reform for millions of seniors and families, House Republicans are now actively pushing for a completely unnecessary government shutdown,” said Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the Democrat who leads the Senate Budget Committee.
As provocative as it was, the move by House Republicans was an expression of their most basic political goal since they took control in 2010: doing what they can to derail the biggest legislative achievement of Mr. Obama’s presidency. Conservative anger over the law’s passage in 2010 helped propel them to power.
As a debate inside the party raged over whether it was politically wise to demand delay or defunding of the act, many Republicans argued that they should fight as hard as they could because that is what their constituents were expecting.
“This is exactly what the public wants,” Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said. She described the House proposal as “fabulous” and said all House Republicans were in support.
The mood in the Capitol on Saturday, at least among Republicans, was downright giddy. When Republican leaders presented their plan in a closed-door meeting on Saturday, cheers and chants of “Vote, vote, vote!” went up. As members left the meeting, many wore beaming grins.
“Like 9/11, let’s roll!” Representative John Culberson of Texas said he shouted to the Republican conference. That the Senate would almost certainly reject the health care delay, he added, was not a concern. “I can’t control what the Senate does. Ulysses S. Grant used to say, ‘Boys, quit worrying about what Bobby Lee is doing. I want to know what we are doing.’ And that’s what the House is doing today, thank God.”
After the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, Republicans were roundly blamed. Their approval ratings plunged, and President Bill Clinton sailed to re-election. This time they say they have a strategy that will shield them from political fallout, especially with the bill to keep money flowing to members of the military.
“If Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats would stop being so stubborn then no, of course the government won’t get shut down,” said Representative Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas.
But some Republicans acknowledged that Senate colleagues like Mr. Cruz hurt their message by turning policy dispute into a personal crusade.
“I think that the rhetoric coming out of the Senate was a bit of sideshow and a circus and distracted people from what the real goal here was,” said Representative Michael Grimm of New York. “The goal was to stop a really onerous law from hurting a lot more families.”
Republicans acknowledged that the difficulty is what is next. If the Senate sends back a bill, it will most likely not have a yearlong delay. Then Mr. Boehner must decide whether to put that measure on the floor, which would anger his conservative members.