WASHINGTON – Launching a risky strategy that all but ensures a federal government shutdown, House Republicans doubled down Saturday on their efforts to stop President Obama’s health care law as a condition for keeping federal offices running past a midnight Monday deadline.
The hard-line approach failed last week in the Senate, but House Republican leaders saw little choice but to cater to the demands of their right flank and try again, setting up a rare Saturday night session. Tea party lawmakers say they believe ordinary Americans want to end the Affordable Care Act and have committed to that goal, even if Republicans are blamed for shutting down routine government services for the first time in nearly two decades.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, was cheered with chants of “Vote! Vote! Vote!” as he outlined the proposal during a noon meeting in the Capitol basement. Under the plan, the House would send a bill to the Senate that would fund the government through Dec. 15 but delay “Obamacare” for one year and repeal a tax that the law imposed on medical-device manufacturers. A separate bill would ensure that military troops continue to be paid if there is a shutdown. Votes were set for Saturday but were delayed into the night.
House Republicans appeared unswayed by stern warnings from the White House, which promised a veto and said the amendments “advance a narrow ideological agenda and threaten the nation’s economy.”
The president’s spokesman warned against pursuing this “reckless and irresponsible” path – one that is doomed in the Senate, where Democrats have the majority.
“Today Republicans in the House of Representatives moved to shut down the government,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. “The president has shown that he is willing to improve the health care law and meet Republicans more than halfway to deal with our fiscal challenges, but he will not do so under threats of a government shutdown that will hurt our economy.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed Saturday that Americans would not be “extorted by tea party anarchists.” “To be absolutely clear, the Senate will reject both the one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act and the repeal of the medical-device tax,” the Nevada Democrat said in a statement. “After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at square one.”
The gloomy prospects of an economic slowdown that could be caused by furloughed federal workers and closed museums, parks and government operations on Tuesday, the first day of the new fiscal year, was no match for the enthusiasm of GOP lawmakers filling the halls of the Capitol on Saturday.
“Did you hear all the hooting and hollering?” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, as rank-and-file lawmakers spilled out of a private strategy session. “The conference is pretty unified. Ready to fight on.”
A day earlier, it had seemed that the Republican Party’s far-right flank had exhausted its efforts to stop the health care law after Democrats in the Senate succeeded in killing the provision to stop federal spending on the health law. Boehner remained largely silent and out of sight.
But the failed GOP effort in the Senate, led by tea party Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, appeared only to energize the conservative flank in the House. More than 60 GOP lawmakers pledged their support of a one-year delay of the law, also known as Obamacare.
Facing such overwhelming numbers, Boehner had few options but to embrace their strategy lest he loosen an already wobbly grip on his increasingly defiant GOP majority.
“He saw folks coalescing around a concept,” said Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., who led the effort to delay Obamacare in the House. “It’s one step at a time.”
Republicans see Tuesday’s launch of the health care law’s online marketplaces as one of their last chances to stop it, even though Democrats in the Senate have made it clear that they were united in seeking to protect the president’s signature legislative accomplishment.
Any delay in the health care law remains highly unlikely. Even more, key aspects of the law are already under way and would not be halted by the GOP measure. The president, in remarks at the White House on Friday, said that the online marketplaces, where the uninsured will shop for policies, will open for business on Tuesday even if there is a federal shutdown.
But the attempt to repeal the medical-device tax could put some Democrats in a bind. More than 30 Democrats in the Senate, and a similar number in the House, have previously backed a repeal.
The 2.3 percent excise tax is particularly problematic for lawmakers from Minnesota and other states with manufacturing companies. The tax on devices other than such routine equipment as eyewear and hearing aids is expected to raise about $30 billion over 10 years to help pay for the Affordable Care Act.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the repeal measure “a gift to the insurance companies by putting them back in charge of Americans’ health care, and it is a complete abdication of responsibility on the part of the House Republican leadership as they bow yet again to the ransom demands of the tea party.”
The Senate, which was not expected to resume work on the bill until Monday, could operate under rules that require only a simple majority to reject the Republican amendments, according to a leadership aide. That would leave the House on the hook to pass the government-funding bill later Monday or cause a shutdown.
Boehner would then have few choices. He could try to approve a stopgap measure to keep government running for a short time as talks continued or he could simply abandon his most conservative colleagues and seek a bipartisan coalition with Democrats to continue to fund the government, risking the ire of his majority.