WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republican leaders struggled Tuesday to win over conservatives for a plan that would keep the government running through mid-December and force the Senate to vote on derailing implementation of President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
House leaders unveiled the plan to rank-and-file Republicans Tuesday but it was met with skepticism from some prominent conservatives and landed with a thud among grassroots architects of the "defund 'Obamacare'" drive.
The GOP plan would employ an unusual procedural trick to make sure that the tea party-backed assault on Obamacare is passed by the House as part of the stopgap funding bill but is decoupled from the measure when sent to the Senate.
The plan is designed to ensure smooth passage of the funding bill before the start of the new budget year and avoid a government shutdown that could be a political disaster for Republicans if they get saddled with the blame.
"Our goal here is not to shut down the government. Our goal is to cut spending and to stop Obamacare," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "I believe that the strategy that was outlined to the members this morning accomplishes that."
But it got poor reviews from some conservatives who see the strategy as a thinly-veiled gimmick. They want to send the legislation to block the health care law as part of a must-pass measure like the stopgap funding bill, which needs to be passed by the Democratic-led Senate and signed by the president if it is to become law.
More pragmatic Republicans see the demand to defund Obamacare as a condition for keeping the government open as a political loser and they note that Democrats could simply peel the provision off of the funding bill and stuff it back in the House's face. Conservative activists, however, are insistent on marrying the two issues, and groups like the Heritage Foundation are pressuring GOP lawmakers to get behind it.
Hard-line lawmakers like Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., took to Twitter to denounce the idea, calling it "hocus pocus." Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee, a group of conservatives that comprises a majority of the GOP caucus, said he couldn't endorse the effort. And Senate Republicans behind the drive, including Ted Cruz of Texas, blasted it as well. Cruz is enormously popular with conservative voters.
"If House Republicans go along with this strategy, they will be complicit in the disaster that is Obamacare," Cruz said in a statement. "Another symbolic vote against Obamacare is meaningless."
House Democrats won't vote for the GOP plan so it will require a united front among Republicans to pass it. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Tuesday that he wouldn't be able to vote for an underlying stopgap measure as well, citing its embrace of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. That would seem to make it impossible for GOP leaders to pass a straightforward stopgap funding bill as has typically been the case.
The difficulty in advancing the stopgap measure, known as a continuing resolution, doesn't inspire confidence in Congress' capacity to approve an even more important measure to increase the government's $16.7 trillion borrowing cap. House and Senate leaders have yet to devise a strategy for grappling with the debt limit increase, which is required to avoid a first-ever default on U.S. obligations.
A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the No. 2 House leader told his fellow Republicans Tuesday that GOP leaders would rejoin the battle against Obamacare when the House considers the debt limit.
The Democratic and Republican leaders of both the House and Senate have agreed to meet Thursday on the fall congressional agenda.
The deadline for action is looming. A new estimate by a Washington think tank predicted the United States could default on its obligations as early as Oct. 18 if Congress and the president fail to agree on legislation to raise the so-called debt limit.
The Bipartisan Policy Center analysis says the default date would come no later than Nov. 5 and that the government would quickly fall behind on its payments, including Social Security benefits and military pensions.
The think tank's estimate is in line with a warning last month by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew that the government would exhaust its borrowing authority by mid-October and be left with just $50 billion cash on hand.
The government has never defaulted on its obligations. Raising the $16.7 trillion borrowing cap promises to be a major struggle for House Republicans and Obama.
Two years ago Obama agreed to pair a $2.1 trillion increase in the debt limit with an equivalent amount in spending cuts spread over 10 years. But the president now says he won't negotiate over the debt limit and is asking Congress to send him a straightforward increase that would ensure the government can pay its bills.
In January, House Republicans permitted an increase in the debt ceiling without demanding offsetting spending cuts.
It's commonly agreed that failure to increase the debt limit on time would roil financial markets and lead to a downgrade of the government's credit rating. The political fallout would also be intense, especially if Social Security benefits are delayed.
Tuesday's study predicts that if the default date — which is when the government cannot pay its bills in full and on time — comes on Oct. 18, the subsequent Social Security payments due on Nov. 1 could be delayed by almost two weeks.
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