For the next five critical days as the debate over Obamacare and a new budget threaten a government shutdown, it’s all about the clock.
Unless Senate Democrats and House Republicans somehow finesse their differences over the 2010 health care law and pass a short-term spending bill, the federal government will begin closing at midnight Monday, when the new fiscal year begins.
A government shutdown combined with the growing threat of a first-ever default on U.S. debt could trigger the worst economic crisis since the financial meltdown five years ago. To add to the anxiety, without a debt ceiling increase, the government would have just $30 billion in cash on October 17, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. That might buy the country 3 days before Uncle Sam has to apply for welfare.
“This could be a black swan event,” said Steve Bell, a former Republican Senate staffer now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Nobody knows what will happen because we’ve never done this before. And it’s extremely rare in history for great nations to have the reserve currency of the market place to not pay their debts on time and in full.”
House Republicans on Wednesday began exploring a way to shift the battle over Obamacare away from keeping the government operating to the debt ceiling. The conservative House members would use the threat of a default to force President Obama to accept a one-year delay of the health-care law’s mandates, taxes and benefits, according to the Washington Post. The House could act on the plan by Friday and Saturday and offer to send the Senate separate legislation to keep the government open.
Administration officials dismissed the plan, vowing there would be no delay of the insurance initiative, which is set to begin enrolling consumers Tuesday, according to the Post. Officials argued that Republicans risk destroying their own credibility among voters, who strongly disapprove of such brinksmanship regardless of their views on Obamacare.
Many Senate Republicans yesterday voiced concern about getting dragged into a government shutdown after a 21-hour talk-a-thon by Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) that called for conservatives to strip Obamacare of its financing. Recent polls suggest that voters would equally blame Republicans and the White House for a shutdown, but some Republicans fear that their party would suffer the same public backlash they did in 1995 and 1996 during the previous government shutdowns.
“Last time, it hurt us pretty bad and I have no reason to think it would be any different,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA).
The Senate started the timer on Wednesday by voting unanimously to debate the measure passed by House Republicans last week. The House bill would keep the government operating through Dec. 15 at roughly the current spending levels, but it pulls the plug on spending to implement the Affordable Care Act, which is set to launch health insurance exchanges next week. The cloture vote—which followed Cruz’s speech—was a procedural move that leads to 30 hours of debate.
QUICK! SEND IT BACK TO THE HOUSE
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) agree on few things, but both want to get the bill back to the House as quickly as possible so that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has time to devise a response.
“I don’t know who else in the conference may feel differently, but I do know if the House doesn’t get what we send over there until Monday, they’re in a pretty tough spot,” McConnell said this week.
Things could get tricky in the Senate when the 30 hours of debate end on Thursday night. Reid plans to then submit an amendment that would preserve funding for Obamacare, while shaving a month off the House continuing resolution so that the government would only be funded through Nov. 15.
This amended bill would then be up for a second cloture vote, most likely on Saturday.
It takes 60 votes to pass a cloture, so Democrats will need support from at least six Republican senators to move the legislation to final passage. Senate Republicans brainstormed at a luncheon on Wednesday to chart strategy through the weekend and beyond.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said that many senators recognize that the real action will take place in the House next week after it receives the Senate’s revised version of the continuing resolution.
“So, probably the thing for all of us to be thinking about is what their action is going to be in response to whatever the Senate does or doesn’t do,” Corker said. “I really do think that’s where the focus needs to be right now.”
House Republicans reportedly are considering a number of options, including a provision that would postpone for a year the Affordable Care Act requirement that uninsured individuals buy health care coverage or pay a tax penalty. GOP lawmakers insist this is fair since the administration delayed a similar mandate for employers until 2015.
The House GOP is also considering a continuing resolution that would keep the government running for about a week, according to The National Review. That would make sometime around Oct. 8 the new drop dead date, while essentially turning the budget and the debt ceiling into the new fiscal cliff.
But just getting any bill back to the House could be a challenge, with Cruz expressing his determination to gum up the works. The Texas Republican has pledged to use “every procedural tool” to stop a vote, starting with his epic faux filibuster that dropped references to “Star Wars,” Dr. Seuss, and Nazis.
Reid, ever mindful of the pressing deadline, expressed his disgust with Cruz trying to run out the clock. “For lack of a better way of describing this, it has been a big waste of time,” Reid said. “We could finish this bill within a matter of hours. But instead we find ourselves being pushed closer and closer to another shutdown.”
But Cruz has an intimidating toolbox. The continuing resolution could be challenged by any senator before final passage for failing to meet three “points of order” under the 2011 Budget Control Act. To override these restrictions, Reid would need to muster 60 votes.
Cruz has raised the stakes on the second cloture vote, which could easily be used as ammunition against Republican incumbents in primary elections. In short, Cruz and his backers—such as the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the Heritage Foundation—appear determined to block the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
"I'll tell you, any vote for cloture—any vote to allow Harry Reid to add funding for Obamacare with just a 51-vote threshold—a vote for cloture is a vote for Obamacare," Cruz told “Fox News Sunday” this week.