As House Republicans debate, no sign government shutdown can be avoided

In a rare Saturday session, House Republicans looked for a way to keep the government operating while forcing a one-year delay in implementing Obamacare.

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS
House Speaker John Boehner leaves a closed-door meeting of the Republican caucus during a rare Saturday session. With conservative Republicans promising not to back down on an emergency spending bill in a push to defund President Obama's healthcare reform law, the government edged closer to its first shutdown since 1996.

In a rare Saturday caucus meeting, House Republicans rejected a Senate stopgap measure that would have averted a government shutdown at midnight Monday.

Instead, the GOP-controlled House is expected to send back to the Senate, as early as Saturday evening, a funding bill (CR or “continuing resolution”) to keep government open through Dec. 15 and force a one-year delay in the implementation of Obamacare, set to begin on Oct. 1.

In a bid to win Democratic support, the measure also repeals a controversial tax on medical devices and adds a measure to ensure that US military forces continue to be paid, even if the government shuts down.

This means that the US government is very close to a shutdown on Oct. 1, and there appears to be no way out, unless someone blinks. House Speaker John Boehner, under fierce pressure from the right wing of his caucus and outside conservative groups supporting them, did not blink.

“We’re in a very good spot,” said Rep. Tom Graves (R) of Georgia, who along with Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, began organizing the House GOP caucus last summer to rally around a plan to fund government only if Obamacare were defunded.

“We’re unified. There’s a lot of energy, and excitement, and resolve,” Rep. Graves said after Saturday’s caucus meeting.

“We’re not being obstructionist, the Senate is,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R) of Alabama. It’s Harry Reid and the Democrats who see a “tactical advantage” in a government shutdown, because they’re convinced that Republicans will be blamed, he added. “I don’t know a single Republican who believes there is a tactical advantage to shutting down government.”

To recap:  Senate majority leader Harry Reid says that the Democrat-controlled Senate will reject any measure that alters the health-care law, period.

The only way to avert a shutdown is for the House to accept the CR that the Senate passed Friday on a party-line vote that simply funds government through Nov. 15, Sen. Reid said. To emphasize the point, the majority leader adjourned the Senate until Monday afternoon.

Moreover, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have, repeatedly and publicly, declined to negotiate with each other. They haven’t spoken since Sept. 20, says a Boehner aide.

With the Senate out of town and the president out of contact, that leaves the ball in Boehner’s court. To accept Reid’s take-it-or-leave-it offer, Boehner needs 217 votes. 

He could get those votes with help from Democrats, as he did to pass the fiscal cliff deal on Aug. 1, 2012, aid for the victims of Hurricane Sandy on Jan. 15, and the reauthorization of the violence against women act on Feb. 28 – all issues that generated significant opposition in House GOP ranks.

But in accordance with what has come to be known as the Hastert rule, the default position for GOP leaders is to take to the floor only those measures that have the support of a majority of their majority.

Dennis Hastert, the longest serving Republican Speaker of the House in history, adopted the rule publicly during a bitter fight within the Republican Party over an immigration bill in 2003.

“I knew we were going to have a difficult time to get this out,” he said, in a phone interview.

Supporters of immigration reform had urged the Speaker to take the bill to the floor and pass it with a majority of Democratic votes. But Hastert says that he refused, saying: “When you pass legislation with a majority of Democrats, you’re not in control anymore.”

But applying that principle to the current civil war in GOP ranks over health-care reform may not be feasible, Hastert says, because leadership is having such trouble getting warring factions in the party to come to the table and work out a compromise.

Part of the problem, he says, is the long-term impact of campaign finance reform in weakening political parties by diverting big-donor funding to outside groups. One result is that the candidates elected under the new campaign-finance regime are coming to Congress with a narrow or more extreme agenda.

 “Leadership should be able to bring warring factions together, but maybe the candidates you are now bringing in are so extreme that you can’t bring them to the table,” he says.

Still, Boehner has the option of ignoring the Hastert rule, as he did with fiscal cliff legislation, hurricane aid, and violence against women act, and take the Senate funding bill to the floor, passing it with the help of Democrats at the 11th  hour on Monday -- and promising Republicans to fight Obamacare on another day.  

“What a lot of Republicans need to do is still to go against it [Obamacare] until the last minute,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. “There’s always room for Speaker Boehner to lead. He could really put the tea party Republicans out on their own.”

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