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‘Obamacare’ fuels showdown as deadline for government shutdown grows near

WASHINGTON – A potential Oct. 1 shutdown of the federal government moved perilously closer Thursday as the Obama administration vowed to veto a House Republican plan to fund the government while not funding “Obama-care.”

The House today passed a temporary funding measure to keep the government running. The bill is coupled with a tea party-backed measure to block President Obama’s new health care law.

The 230 -189 vote sets the stage for a confrontation with the Democratic-led Senate. The Senate promises to strip the “defund Obamacare” provision from the bill next week and will challenge the House to pass it as a straightforward funding bill that Obama will sign.

The White House promises Obama would veto the measure in the unlikely event it reaches him.

At issue is the need to pass a short-term funding bill to prevent a partial government shutdown when the budget year ends on Sept. 30. Washington’s longstanding budget stalemate has derailed the annual appropriations bills required to fund federal agency operations.

House Republican leaders have long looked for a legislative way to allow them to defund the president’s signature health care law without increasing the likelihood of a government shutdown.

“When it comes to the health care law, the debate in the House has been settled. I think our position is very clear: The law is a train wreck, and it’s going to raise costs, it’s destroying American jobs – and it must go,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.

Democrats responded angrily, saying the Affordable Care Act is moving forward toward its Oct. 1 implementation without major glitches – and adding that the major glitch would be the hit on the economy caused by a government shutdown.

A government funding bill that robs money from the president’s signature accomplishment “is not going to happen,” said Brian C. Deese, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

“Washington needs to avoid self-inflicted wounds that take the economy backwards.”

The partisan rhetoric heated up as the nation approaches the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year. Congress must approve funds to run the government into the new fiscal year before Oct. 1 or else nonessential government operations will shut down.

Deese said each agency will establish its own shutdown plan, but history provides a guide for what may well happen if the Republican House, Democratic Senate and Democratic president cannot agree on a budget deal.

At the time of the last government shutdown in 1995, about 800,000 of the nation’s 2 million federal employees were furloughed, but Social Security checks continued to be issued, and essential personnel – such as members of the military and border agents – worked without pay.

Republicans who back the bill funding the government while defunding the Affordable Care Act stress that they don’t want a government shutdown but that they must do something to prevent the law’s implementation.

“Whether we defund it or delay it, the fact is Obamacare is imploding before our eyes,” Collins said. “Workers are losing jobs, they’re getting their hours reduced, they’re losing their health insurance, small business is not hiring, there’s confusion and disarray.”

Collins also argued that the “exchanges” – online marketplaces where the uninsured would search for health insurance – are not ready, even though they are supposed to open for business Oct. 1 so that people can buy policies in advance of the law’s Jan. 1, 2014, requirement that they be insured.

Democrats offer a dramatically different read on the health care law.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, noted that people buying premiums on their own in New York will see their premiums cut in half.

The state already has an elaborate website up and ready where people will be able to shop for policies.

“No, it’s not unraveling,” Higgins said of the health care law. “That’s fiction in the minds of those who are bent on its destruction. There are many, many good aspects of this law.”

Higgins agreed that there are parts of the bill that ought to be changed, including the requirement that businesses that employ more than 50 offer health insurance to their employees – a provision that has prompted some businesspeople to say they’re limiting hiring.

Republicans should work with Democrats to change that provision, Higgins said.

“But when you have a party that is bent on the destruction of this program and the president – let’s be truthful about that – you get only suboptimal outcomes,” Higgins added.

The GOP House bill would fund the government through Dec. 15 at an annual level of $986 billion, and it would leave in place the controversial “sequestration” cuts that took effect after an earlier budget battle this year.

Once the House passes the measure, it will go to the Democratic-led Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has vowed to strip out the provision to defund the health care law.

That would kick the measure back to the House, where Republicans would be faced with the choice of abandoning their hopes of defunding the health care law or perhaps being seen as responsible for a government shutdown.

Old-time Republicans fear that this could damage the party, given that polls showed that the 1995 shutdown backfired on the GOP, but many in the younger generation seem willing to take that risk.

“I am very interested in working with anyone on a bipartisan basis to avert a shutdown,” said Reed, the GOP lawmaker who represents the Southern Tier. “But I did not go to Washington to maintain the status quo.”

The GOP’s willingness to move toward a shutdown infuriated Reid, the Senate’s Democratic leader.

“I only hope the anarchist Republicans in the House of Representatives come to their senses before it’s too late,” he said.

What’s more, the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year is just the first of two crucial deadlines Congress will face in the next month.

The Obama administration says the federal debt ceiling will be breached by mid-October unless Congress acts to raise it, and House Republicans are tying their measure to do that to a provision that would delay the health care law’s “individual mandate” for a year.

“Most of us, myself included, agree that the time to really fight for what’s right for America perhaps more properly belongs in the debt ceiling debate than the continuing resolution,” Collins said.

President Obama has insisted that he will not negotiate at all over the debt ceiling issue, but Collins is holding out hope the president will cave.

“He certainly has shown that tendency,” Collins said.

Obama administration officials insist, though, that there is absolutely no way the president will engage in any back-and-forth on the debt ceiling.

“The full faith and credit of our nation isn’t a bargaining chip,” said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Democrats warn that if the debt ceiling is breached, the government won’t be able to pay its bills, and its credit rating will be cut, meaning higher borrowing costs for homebuyers and businesses.

Obama administration officials warn that all of that would do great damage to the economy. But before addressing the debt ceiling issue, they have to contend with the possible shutdown.

“We don’t want it,” Burwell said of a government shutdown. “We think it can be prevented. And we still have time.”


The Associated Press contributed to this report.