Shutdown Looks Likely as Congress Hits Final Hours

Michael Catalini and Billy House
National Journal

With just hours to go until a government shutdown, Senate Democrats are promising to torpedo the House's latest legislative volley, Republicans are formulating last-minute plans to score a victory against Obamacare, and both sides are digging political entrenchments that make shuttering the government increasingly likely.

With the Senate set to act next, and the House readying a response, the two chambers are engaged in a game of political hot potato, with both trying not to be considering the last version of a continuing resolution when the deadline hits.

But with a partial shutdown—the first since 1996—slated for midnight, many are pessimistic. Asked on CBS's Face the Nation if he thinks a shutdown will occur, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said, "I'm afraid I do."

"The House position, which is basically the same one they sent us the last time, is going to be rejected again," Durbin said. "And we are going to face the prospect of the government shutting down."

What happens next, according to Senate Democratic aides, is that the Senate will take up the continuing resolution passed by the House early Sunday morning, but will strip out what Democratic leaders view as toxic provisions that would affect the Affordable Care Act.

The House's bill delays the implementation of Obamacare for a year and repeals a medical-device tax that funds portions of the ACA. A separate resolution passed by the House calls for paying the military in the event of a shutdown.

House Republicans are hoping that Democratic senators from conservative states will join with those who oppose the medical-device tax to pressure Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for a vote on those provisions.

But Reid's next move is anything but a mystery. Saying that the House's action Sunday was "pointless," Reid intends to strip the controversial provisions (whether the Senate will vote on the military funding is still unclear) with a motion to table, which requires a simple majority, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide. Reid will then send the same bill that passed the chamber on Friday back to the House, the aide said.

After the Senate acts, the House is likely to have only hours to address the Senate version of the "clean" funding bill, a fact that Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, railed against in a statement Sunday. "If the Senate stalls until Monday afternoon … it would be an act of breathtaking arrogance by the Senate Democratic leadership," he said. "They will be deliberately bringing the nation to the brink of a government shutdown."

But House Republican leaders said Sunday that they were also mulling options on how to proceed in a way that might be acceptable to enough conservative members of their conference as they race against the midnight deadline.

"We have other options for the Senate to look at," said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. He would not outline those, or say whether a "clean" funding bill was an option.

One option being considered, House GOP members say, is to revise the CR to include language by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., that would prevent members of Congress and their staffers from receiving exemptions from key Obamacare measures.

But Reid has shot down any provisions that would affect Obamacare.

Indeed, the Senate Democrats' position has opened them up to blistering attacks from Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who paint Reid and President Obama as unbending. With House Republicans arguing they've acted to prevent a shutdown, they say it's up to Reid to capitulate.

"Let's be clear what the Senate has done," Cruz said on NBC's Meet the Press. "So far Majority Leader Harry Reid has essentially told the House of Representatives and the American people, go jump in a lake. He said, 'I'm not willing to compromise. I'm not willing to even talk.' "

Cruz, who has helped set in motion the latest congressional action against Obamacare, did not lay out his plans on Sunday.

Senate Democrats are betting that the public will blame the GOP for a shutdown, and a contingent of Senate Republicans agree. The thinking is that Cruz has set the GOP on a crash course because Obama has threatened to veto any legislation that repeals or delays the Affordable Care Act.

Asked about the criticism from other Republicans, Cruz was unfazed. "I'm just trying to fight for 26 million Texans and the American people," he said.

The federal government has shut down 17 times since 1976, according to an NBC tally. The last time was for 21 days in late 1995 and early 1996, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Clinton clashed over spending. That shutdown left a deep political scar, with Clinton's approval rating skyrocketing after the shutdown and Republicans shouldering much of the blame.

In a persistent GOP line on several Sunday talk shows, House Republicans said the showdown has resulted from a president who has refused to negotiate over Obamacare.

"People are panicked in this country over higher premiums, lack of access. This law is having a negative effect," House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said on CNN's State of the Union.

She said the standoff will end "with us coming to the table and negotiating. But … Republicans do not want to shut down the government."

However, House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said on Face the Nation that the Republican effort to delay the law "is a way to prevent millions of Americans from signing up for more affordable health care."

As he put it, "What you see in the House is that Speaker Boehner has essentially handed the gavel over to Senator Cruz."