WASHINGTON — A deadlocked Congress entered the final weekend of the fiscal year with no clear ideas of how to avoid furloughs for more than 800,000 federal workers. Millions more could be left without paychecks.
The Senate on Friday approved a stopgap government funding bill and promptly departed, leaving all of the pressure to find a solution on House Republican leaders.
President Barack Obama weighed in, sternly lecturing GOP leaders that the easiest path forward was to approve the Senate's bill, which includes money for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the president's prized legislation achievement, which he signed into law in 2010. But a far-right bloc of House and Senate Republicans banded together to leave House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, virtually powerless to act.
"My message to Congress is this: Do not shut down the government. Do not shut down the economy. Pass a budget on time," Obama said in the White House press briefing room.
Boehner's leadership team offered no public comment and remained out of sight most of Friday, hunkering down for another weekend on the brink. For Boehner, this is the latest in a series of unstable moments that have become the hallmark of his three-year run as speaker.
With a stroke-of-midnight deadline on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Democrats would reject any conservative add-ons that Boehner might attach to the funding bill. That would further delay passage, and given the staunch opposition from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has said that he will make no concession to help move the process along, the slow-moving Senate would require up to a week to approve something even if Reid were amenable to the changes. That sets the stage for a shutdown Tuesday.
"We've passed the only bill that can avert a government shutdown Monday night. I said this on the floor, I say it again: This is it, time is gone," Reid said Friday after the midday passage of the funding bill on a party-line vote.
Before that final roll call, Cruz's attempt to filibuster the legislation was throttled in a bipartisan 79--19 vote, but the first-year senator drew support from nearly half the rank-and-file Republicans in defiance of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Cruz confirmed reports that he has been talking with House conservatives to help plot their strategy to force Boehner's hand on the health care law. "I am confident if the House listens to the people, as it did last week, that it will continue to step forward and respond to the suffering that is coming from Obamacare," Cruz told reporters Friday, saying he has had "numerous conversations" with House Republicans.
Those Republicans upended a strategy crafted by Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to first advance legislation related to the federal borrowing limit, including more demands to delay the health care law, then allow government funding to be approved.
That plan required the GOP leaders to draw all votes from their side of the aisle — 217 of the 232 Republicans — and instead the Cruz-led contingent holds more than enough votes to sabotage any moves by Boehner and Cantor. Those House Republicans late Friday offered their version of what they want attached to the funding resolution and sent back to the Senate: an amendment delaying until 2015 implementation of all the health law's taxes, mandates and benefits as well as its provisions aimed at squeezing savings from Medicare.
"A simple and reasonable way to ensure fairness for all is to provide every American the same one-year Obamacare delay that President Barack Obama provided for businesses and others," Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., the bill's author, said in a written statement. He has more than 60 co-sponsors.
While the health care law has had some provisions delayed amid a wobbly rollout, Obama and Democrats oppose any effort to strip funding or delay implementation of the law as it begins a critical new period next week. The president warned that demands to delay the Affordable Care Act's implementation were even more reckless in connection with raising the debt limit, because the Treasury will run out of maneuvers to continue borrowing Oct. 17 and will head toward a first-of-its-kind default on the nearly $17 trillion debt. Economists have warned that a default would send a shock through global financial markets and would jolt interest rates.
"I don't know how I can be more clear about this: Nobody gets to threaten the full faith and credit of the United States just to extract political concessions," Obama said Friday.
Before the Senate voted, Reid denounced as "anarchists" the Cruz-led Republicans who he said were driving the country toward economic devastation.
"Today the Republican Party has been infected by a small destructive faction," Reid said. "These extremists are more interested in putting on a show, as one Republican colleague put it, than legislating."
One veteran of the mid-1990s shutdowns, which also pitted a Democratic president against a Republican speaker, warned a temporary shutdown was increasingly likely.
"It depends if wisdom trumps energy. It hasn't thus far, has it?" Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said, a dig at those who want to continue the campaign against the Affordable Care Act.
Coburn, a House freshman in the 1990s shutdowns, said it wouldn't matter much until Oct. 15. That's when the first paychecks for military soldiers — including those on the front lines of Afghanistan — would not go out.
"When you start getting into military pay, that's serious,'' Coburn said. "When the people defending this country can't pay their house payments, things they need to do. We'll fold like hot cakes if they shut down. Republicans will."