House Takes Last Shot at Obamacare before Shutdown
Policy + Politics

House Takes Last Shot at Obamacare before Shutdown

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The United States government moved to the verge of its first federal government shutdown in nearly two decades Monday night when the House passed a stopgap spending bill that takes aim at President Obama’s signature health-care law, just hours before the deadline to keep the government running.

The measure includes a one-year delay of the cornerstone of Obama’s Affordable Care Act — the so-called individual mandate — while adding a provision that would strip federal subsidies for lawmakers and their staffs. It would fund the government through Dec. 15.

The Senate swiftly rejected the bill’s health-care provisions with a vote of 54 to 46. The upper chamber will move to table any new amendments sent over from the House later Monday night, according to senior Democratic aides. The Senate may reconvene at some point after 11:00 p.m.


The House bill passed 228-201, largely along party lines. Twelve Republicans crossed over to vote “no,” while just nine Democrats voted for the bill.

Right after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) chastised House Republicans for trying to shred the health-care law once again and charged that the GOP wants a shutdown. "Remember, they don't believe in government," Reid said. "So what's a good way to really hurt government? Shut it down."

Hours earlier, Obama, saying that an impending government shutdown “does not have to happen,” called on House Republicans to stop trying to attach “extraneous and controversial demands” to a short-term funding bill and choose instead to “do the right thing” by passing a spending measure already approved by the Senate.

Obama later called the four top leaders of the House and Senate from both parties, but there was no breakthrough, and the Republican-controlled House went ahead with votes on a new resolution even as the White House promised a veto.

Speaking to reporters with less than seven hours to go before a midnight deadline to avoid a government shutdown, Obama outlined the impact of such a development, noting that it would affect hundreds of thousands of federal employees and businesses across the country that depend on them.

“It would throw a wrench into the gears of our economy at a time when those gears have gained some traction,” he said. “The idea of putting the American people’s hard-earned progress at risk is the height of irresponsibility, and it doesn’t have to happen,” he added. “All of this is entirely preventable if the House chooses to do what the Senate has already done.”

The White House said in a separate statement that Obama would veto the latest House Republican plan to keep the government funded, in the unlikely event it reached his desk. The statement said that by insisting on “unacceptable” provisions, “House Republicans are pushing the government toward shutdown.”


The White House said Obama called House Speaker John A. Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday evening to demand a clean funding bill, with no “politically-motivated attempts to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act.” Obama also “reiterated that he will not negotiate on the debt limit,” which is expected to be reached within three weeks, the White House said.

A spokesman for Boehner said the speaker “told the president that Obamacare is costing jobs.”

For their part, moderate House Republicans retreated Monday evening from their vow to defeat a procedural hurdle for considering the latest GOP proposal.

After threatening to blow up the bill’s progress, just six Republicans opposed the motion to set up the final debate — and several of those were from the far right flank of the GOP caucus. The measure passed, 225 to 204, clearing the way for a vote on final passage of the legislation.

Obama charged that House leaders were still trying to attach “ideological” provisions to the spending bill, “all to save face after making some impossible promises to the extreme right wing of their party.” He said the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, is already benefiting millions of Americans and will allow tens of millions to begin shopping for health insurance starting Tuesday.

“The Affordable Care Act is moving forward,” he said. “That funding is already in place. You can’t shut it down.”

The president subsequently convened a Cabinet meeting to discuss the potential impacts of a shutdown on various government agencies.

Obama spoke a few hours after the Senate rejected House amendments to a short-term spending bill, killing a provision that would delay implementation of the health-care law and moving the U.S. government closer to a shutdown. Obama had said earlier that he was not resigned to a shutdown and planned to continue talking to congressional leaders.

The 54 to 46 party-line vote made good on a vow by Senate Majority Leader Reid to reject a funding bill approved by the House early Sunday because it would delay Obama’s signature 2010 health-care law for one year and repeal a tax on medical devices.

Immediately after the Senate convened Monday afternoon, Reid moved to table the House amendments. That exercise required a simple majority and was accomplished solely with Democratic votes. The Senate later passed a bill that ensures that members of the armed forces will continue to get paid in the event of a shutdown.

[Click here for live updates on the shutdown crisis.]

Despite the Senate’s rejection of their amendments, House GOP leaders persisted Monday, advocating another sharp attack against the health-care law that was all but certain to be rejected by Senate Democrats, according to two senior Republican advisers.

Leaders of the 175-member Republican Study Committee unanimously approved the plan, likely securing enough votes to ensure passage.

“This bill ensures that all members of Congress and the White House will finally have to live by the same laws that have been passed, just like all Americans,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the study’s committee’s chairman, said in a statement. “Either Obamacare is good enough that it should apply to all, or it is so bad that it should apply to none. It is time for the sweetheart deals and backroom exemptions to end.”

Emerging from an afternoon meeting of House Republicans, one of Boehner’s closest friends and allies, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), endorsed the deal and said it was supported by the GOP conference.

House Democrats countered with an offer to reduce their bottom line for the short-term spending bill from $1.028 trillion to the Republicans’ number of $986 billion in a “clean” continuing resolution, an offer that the Democrats described as a significant concession.

In a Capitol Hill news briefing, House Democratic leaders said the proposal was acceptable to Reid, and they challenged Republicans to “take yes for an answer.”

“We have given up our number,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). “If that’s not compromising, I don’t know what is.”

If Republicans reject the offer, House Minority Leader Pelosi and other Democrats said, it would mean that the GOP actually wants to shut down the government.

But Boehner said Monday that House Republicans would not accept a “clean” continuing resolution, meaning a bill that does not defund or delay the health-care law, news services reported.

“That’s not going to happen,” Boehner said.

Asked whether he thought the House would pass a “clean” continuing resolution just to keep the government operating, Cole said, “I don’t think so.”

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), one of the most moderate members of the House GOP conference, said he plans to vote against the latest short-spending proposal Monday night, and he predicted that as many as another 20 Republican lawmakers might join him.

“I don’t want to be the facilitator of a disastrous process and plan,” King told reporters. He said he and other colleagues lamented that “we’re throwing red meat to the public and using our staff to get us out of the trouble we got ourselves into.”

Senate Republicans, exiting their own hour-long huddle in a Capitol suite, voiced increasing frustration with the House GOP’s inability to approve any legislative vehicle that stood a chance of winning approval in the upper chamber.

“All we’re doing is waiting to see what the House says,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters.

“It’s up to the House,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who this summer called a shutdown strategy the “dumbest” plan, dismissed the latest House GOP plan to attach to the funding bill a delay of the individual mandate in Obamacare, as well a provision to that would strip federal subsidies for lawmakers, staff and senior appointees in the administration. He noted that a unified bloc of 54 members of the Senate Democratic caucus would block those amendments.

Speaking to reporters shortly after 5 p.m. Eastern time, Obama said he was “willing to work with anyone of either party to make sure that the Affordable Care Act works better, to make sure the government works better.”

“But one faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn’t get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election,” he said. “You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job . . . or just because there’s a law there that you don’t like.”

He added: “Congress needs to keep our government open, needs to pay our bills on time and never, ever threaten the full faith and credit of the United State of America. And time’s running out. My hope and expectation is that in the 11th hour once again, that Congress will choose to do the right thing, and that the House of Representatives in particular will choose the right thing.”

Earlier, answering a reporter’s question in the Oval Office during an appearance with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama said, “I am not at all resigned” to a shutdown despite the looming midnight deadline.

He said he would talk to congressional leaders later Monday, as well as on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Obama reiterated that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling, but he said he is “eager” to begin negotiations over a long-term spending plan once the current impasses are resolved.

“But the only way to do that is for everybody to sit down in good faith without threatening to harm women and veterans and children with a government shutdown,” Obama said. “And certainly we can’t have any kind of meaningful negotiations under the cloud of potential default, the first in U.S. history.”

He cautioned lawmakers to avoid the threat of a default, saying that the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. “We don’t mess with that,” he said. “And we certainly don’t allow domestic policy differences on issues that are unrelated to the budget to endanger not only our economy but the world economy.”

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, floated the idea of quickly passing a one-week continuing resolution to keep the government funded.

Senate Minority Leader McConnell (R-Ky.) circulated the idea among senators, his office said Monday afternoon.

“Despite the Democrats’ refusal to work with the House to solve the problem, Republicans are working to protect the troops, prevent a shutdown and find solutions to the difficulties caused by Senate Democrats’ delays, said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.

House Republicans are also discussing the possibility of passing a one-week stopgap measure, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) told reporters.

Asked about the proposal, Reid said he strongly opposes it. Other Democrats also rejected it.

“Why go through this for another five days?” asked Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

“The bottom line is very simple,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “You negotiate on this, they will up the ante for the debt limit.”

Headed into a closed GOP meeting, several conservatives also expressed skepticism about McConnell’s proposal. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said it made Republicans look “weak.” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) said it was pointless.

Appearing before reporters later, House Democratic leaders portrayed their offer to accept the GOP budget number as proof that they are willing to go to great lengths to avoid a government shutdown, and they urged the Republicans to stop including what Pelosi called “gotcha things” in the spending bill.

“Unless we wish to be compared to a banana republic, we urge all of our colleagues to stop with this spoiled child game-playing,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.).

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) rejected the idea of a one-week stopgap measure, saying that the existing bill is already “short term.”

The frustrated and weary lawmakers gathered at the U.S. Capitol amid dimming hopes of finding a compromise that would keep the government operating past midnight.

[Read about the impact of a shutdown on the national economy and on the economy of the Washington region .]

U.S. stock markets dropped Monday, as analysts watched the tense standoff between the political parties, which seems likely to worsen in two weeks when lawmakers must decide whether to raise the debt ceiling.

The House opened for the day at 10 a.m. with no sign of movement but plenty of vitriol. Boehner slammed the Senate for failing to move more quickly to take up the House bill. “The Senate decided not to work yesterday,” he said. “Well, my goodness, if there’s such an emergency, where are they?”

Members of both parties were quick to chime in. Democrats accused their Republican colleagues of risking a government shutdown over yet another attempt, on top of dozens of previous ones, to gut a legitimately passed health-care law.

“I say to my colleagues across the aisle: Stop trying to shut down the government of the United States of America,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.).

But Republicans appeared to sense an opening in the delay in the inevitable Senate action. “Where, oh where has the Senate gone? Where, oh where can they be?” asked Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.).

In a CNN poll released Monday morning, 46 percent of Americans said they would blame Republicans in Congress if the government shuts down, while 36 percent said they would hold President Obama responsible. Thirteen percent of respondents said both congressional Republicans and the president would be at fault.

House Republicans are weighing several options for what to do when the Senate rejects their latest bill, senior GOP aides said Sunday. The possibilities include:

●Trying again to repeal the medical-device tax. The tax, a 2.3 percent levy on sales of medical devices such as hip implants and defibrillators, is projected to raise about $30 billion over the next decade to help cover the cost of expanding health-insurance coverage.

Device manufacturers have complained, and neither party is wild about the tax. Early Sunday, 17 Democrats voted with House Republicans to repeal it. Earlier this year, the Senate voted 79 to 20 to repeal and replace it.

Still, repealing the tax would not stab at the heart of the health-care law, and it is not clear how much support the strategy would muster among House ­conservatives. Meanwhile, even many Democrats who have campaigned against the tax say they will not break ranks on the ­government-funding bill.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), for example, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he is willing to discuss the tax, but “not with a gun to my head, not with the prospect of shutting down the government.”

●Attacking a different part of the health-care law, such as a special board created to keep Medicare costs low. The Independent Payment Advisory Board was derided as a “death panel” during the 2009 debate over the health law. It remains so politically toxic that congressional Republicans have refused to recommend members. But this option would probably face the same hurdles as repealing the device tax.

●Proposing to eliminate health-insurance subsidies for lawmakers and their staff members. This idea is so explosive on Capitol Hill, aides in both parties say it would amount to a declaration of all-out war. It probably has no hope of passage. But if the House could approve it, Senate Democrats would be left to take the blame for shutting down the government to keep their own health benefits.

Another advantage: It would throw a bone to right-wing groups that have declared the long-standing employer subsidies a “special exemption” now that lawmakers are required to enter the new health-insurance exchanges.

Still, many rank-and-file Republicans — especially those who are not wealthy, are not married to working spouses with insurance or are caring for sick children — are opposed to this option. Senior GOP lawmakers and aides in several House leadership offices said the House is not likely to pursue it.

●Forgetting about the add-ons — putting the Senate government funding bill on the floor and letting it pass with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes. This probably would have been easier two weeks ago. But after all the drama over defunding Obamacare, it is not clear that House leaders could muster two dozen votes to help the chamber’s 200 Democrats pass the measure — at least not until conservatives have felt the pain of a government shutdown.

As Republican leaders mulled the possibilities, others in the GOP began bracing for the political fallout. A recent CBS News-New York Times poll found that 44 percent of the public would blame Republicans and 35 percent would blame Obama and the Democrats for a shutdown. Sixteen percent would blame both parties equally.

“Look, I don’t want a government shutdown,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has led the charge to use the threat of a shutdown to dismantle the health law. “I don’t think Harry Reid should shut down the government,” Cruz said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” implying that a shutdown would be entirely Reid’s decision.

About a quarter of the public supports the idea of shutting down the government to defund Obamacare. But more than half of conservative Republicans support it, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. For lawmakers in deep-red districts, that is the slice of public opinion that matters.

On Sunday, Republicans tended to argue that they were trying to compromise with Obama and the Democrats to avoid a shutdown while pursuing conservative principles.

“I have said all along it is not a good idea to shut down government,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on “Face the Nation.” “But I also think that it is not a good idea to give the president 100 percent of what he wants on Obamacare.”

When host Bob Schieffer noted that Obamacare is already the law, Paul said that is why Republicans are offering a “new compromise.”

Instead of “getting rid of his signature achievement,” Paul said, Republicans want merely to delay it “to make sure that it doesn’t totally destroy the insurance market in our country.”

Lori Montgomery, David A. Fahrenthold, David Nakamura, Rosalind S. Helderman, Peyton Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.