WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday moved toward approving legislation to keep the government open without gutting the health care law after Sen. Ted Cruz's 21-hour. 19-minute verbal assault on it ended with a 100--0 vote that is likely to lead to an outcome that Cruz had tried to stop.
The strange series of events started with Cruz's marathon speech — which began Tuesday afternoon and went on until noon Wednesday — and ended with the unanimous vote to cut off debate and proceed to consideration of a bill passed by the House that would keep the government open past Monday.
Cruz's "yes" vote angered fellow Senate Republicans, baffled Democrats and confused conservative activists who had mobilized to stand with him against any procedural step forward.
On Sunday, he made clear that he opposed cutting off debate — a parliamentary move called cloture — unless Majority Leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., agreed that a vote to strip language from the bill that would gut the health care law be given a 60-vote threshold for passage.
On Fox News Sunday, Cruz, a freshman from Texas, declared his opposition to "any vote for cloture, any vote to allow Harry Reid to add funding for Obamacare with just a 51-vote threshold."
"A vote for cloture is a vote for Obamacare," Cruz said.
Yet after the vote on Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Cruz had never intended to oppose the motion to take up the bill, an assertion contradicted by Cruz's words and procedural motions for days before the tally. Aides to senior Republican senators fumed that they had been deluged by conservative activists pressing for a "no" vote.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said that "the only reason Ted Cruz switched to 'yes' is that he would have had so few people voting with him it would have been embarrassing."
Reid greeted the conclusion of Cruz's performance by declaring it "a big waste of time."
While heads spun on Capitol Hill, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew on Wednesday handed Congress a new deadline to worry about: Oct. 17. That is when the Treasury will have only $30 billion of cash on hand, putting the United States on the precipice of an unprecedented default, unless Congress raises the government's statutory borrowing limit.
It is the first hard deadline offered by the Treasury and compounds the problems of a Congress already struggling to keep the government open past Monday, when much of it will run out of money.
"The president remains willing to negotiate over the future direction of fiscal policy, but he will not negotiate over whether the United States will pay its bills for past commitments," Lew wrote in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The Senate will formally take up a House bill today that keeps the government open through Dec. 15 while stripping money from President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. Senate leaders in both parties closed in on an agreement to push forward final votes and cut off debate on the spending bill itself. That would give Boehner more time to find a path forward in the House before the midnight Monday deadline, shutting down the government.
House Republicans will begin the second stage of the fiscal showdown today with a meeting to approve legislation to increase the debt ceiling and delay the health care law for a year, force construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and speed an overhaul of the tax code.
Some Senate Republicans urged Boehner to put a spending bill without policy prescriptions to a vote to keep the government operating — possibly for as little as a week — while negotiations continued. Other Republicans said he should attach only minor changes to the Affordable Care Act, like a repeal of a tax on medical devices that helps pay for the law.
Aides to the Republican leadership said Boehner would make a decision about his next moves only after the Senate completes work on a bill that Democrats hope will finance the government through Nov. 15 without any conservative policy measures. Senate Republicans conceded they are not likely to stop that, and they pressed Cruz and his allies to relent.
"We're getting so late here there really could be a shutdown," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah. "That doesn't help anybody."
With his indefatigable stand on the Senate floor, Cruz managed to raise his own profile, anger some colleagues, thrill others and escalate the war over the health care law. The program begins enrolling the uninsured Tuesday, the same day much of the government would shut down.
"Coming into this debate, we clearly were not united," he said, greeting reporters off the floor. "There were significant divisions in the conference. I hope those divisions dissolve, that we come together in party unity and that all 46 Republicans vote against cloture on the bill on Friday or Saturday."
But those divisions were far from healed. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., followed Cruz to the floor with a blistering speech, saying the health care law had been subject to months of debate in committee and on the floor, had been amended repeatedly and was an issue in the 2012 presidential election. He was especially incensed by Cruz's comparison of Republicans who are not standing with him to appeasers who allowed Hitler to march through Europe.
"Elections have consequences, and those elections were clear," McCain said. "A majority of the American people supported the president of the United States and renewed his stewardship of this country."