WASHINGTON (AP) — Pressure is building on fractious Republicans in the House of Representatives now that the Democratic-led Senate is poised to send them legislation that would prevent a partial government shutdown.
Republicans, prodded by their conservative tea party wing, want to use the temporary spending bill to strip funding from President Barack Obama's signature health care program. But if they insist on the point over Democratic objections, there would be little hope of getting the bill through Congress and a shutdown would be almost inevitable. That would be politically risky ahead of next year's congressional elections.
One option for Republicans is to defer the fight for a few weeks and include the health care funding cuts as part of legislation permitting the government to borrow almost $1 trillion to pay its bills. But Democrats would reject that as well, and if the two parties couldn't work out an agreement, the U.S. would risk its first-ever default on its obligations.
Lawmakers face a midnight Monday deadline to complete a stopgap spending bill to avoid a shutdown that would keep hundreds of thousands of federal workers off the job, close national parks and generate damaging headlines for whichever side the public holds responsible.
The timeline is daunting since House Republicans are divided on what to do if the Senate sends back a straightforward spending bill stripped of the anti-health care law provision.
In a procedural move Wednesday, the Senate unanimously decided to advance the spending bill toward a vote. But Sen. Ted Cruz whipped up the tea party wing with a 21-hour marathon speech railing against the health care overhaul that has become known as "Obamacare."
Cruz, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and other hard-charging conservatives see the spending bill as an opportunity to derail Obama's most important domestic achievement. But they are at odds with some Republican leaders in the Senate and others in the House who fear the strategy could backfire.
Republican leaders fear their party could get blamed for a shutdown that would threaten the fragile U.S. economic recovery. For many senior Republicans, memories are fresh of the 1995-96 government shutdowns that bruised their party and strengthened President Bill Clinton.
The top Democrat in the Senate, majority leader Harry Reid, set in motion a second key procedural vote Friday that promises to expose the divide between Cruz and more pragmatic Republicans. Many Republican senators have said they'll vote to further advance the measure rather than continue with delaying tactics. The Senate's passage of the spending bill — stripped of the Obamacare provision — was expected no later than Saturday.
The simplest thing for the Republican-controlled House to do would be to accept the Senate bill and send it to the White House for Obama's signature, a prospect that's unappealing to Republicans because it would make them look like they're surrendering.
Now, Republican leaders are exploring adding face-saving options — like the repeal of a tax on medical devices, which many Democrats also oppose — to the stopgap spending bill.
The House is expected to approve a measure this week allowing the Treasury to borrow freely for another year, although that legislation, too, would include a provision to carry out the Republican campaign against Obamacare. While no final decisions have been made, party officials said a one-year delay was likely to be added, rather than the full-fledged defunding that is part of the spending bill awaiting action in the Senate.
Shutdown-averting bills traditionally have been steered clear of these kinds of battles for fear of a politically damaging crisis. But with the new health care law poised to enroll millions of people into Obamacare starting Oct. 1, there's a new urgency among opponents to try to derail it.
The 3-year-old law requires all Americans to buy health insurance and provides tax credits to bring down the cost for many.
Republicans consider that requirement an intrusion into private decision-making. They also argue the legislation is causing employers to defer hiring new workers, lay off existing ones and reduce the hours of others to hold down costs as they try to ease the impact of the bill's taxes and other requirements.