By Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a renegade Tea Party favorite, took his fight to defund President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul to the Senate floor on Tuesday, but most of his Republican colleagues refused to join him.
In fact, a majority of the 46 Republicans in the Senate may end up lining up instead with their party leaders, who want to pass an emergency spending bill by September 30 that would avoid a federal government shutdown and would undercut Cruz's high-stakes effort to stop Obamacare.
Standing in a nearly empty Senate, Cruz began an attention-grabbing speech in the early afternoon Tuesday that could stretch into Wednesday in favor of withholding funds to operate the government unless Obamacare is gutted.
"I intend to speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand," said the freshman Texas senator who has his eye on a 2016 run for president.
He went on to talk about his father "flippin pancakes," making "green eggs and ham," "the travesty of Obamacare," and, proudly, about his unpopularity among many fellow Republicans.
Practically every day, he said in his marathon speech, "I now pick up the newspaper to learn what a scoundrel I am."
It had the look and sound of an old-fashioned "filibuster" used traditionally by senators to block legislation, except that in this case, it won't.
Under Senate rules, Cruz must yield the floor for a procedural vote on Wednesday when Democrats and many Republicans are expected to band together to begin moving the must-do spending bill toward passage, likely on Sunday.
It will then go back to the House, which will have one day to pass the bill or find a compromise with the Senate. Unless new funding is quickly approved, a government shutdown would begin on Tuesday.
Republicans uniformly want to repeal Obamacare. But many see that as a political impossibility in the face of Democratic opposition and do not want to trigger a government shutdown in a battle that even Cruz has acknowledged is futile.
For the most part, Democrats sat back enjoying the display of a Republican in a dog fight with other Republicans.
Cruz has a following however. Club for Growth, a conservative group influential among Republicans, put senators on notice that it expected them to support Cruz's bid and block Democrats' from eliminating the provision to defund Obamacare.
But his fellow Republicans were moving in the other direction one day after the party's top two leaders in the Senate, Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, refused to lend their support to Cruz.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee that oversees Obamacare, announced he would side with McConnell rather than Cruz.
Senator Lindsey Graham said he expects a majority of the Senate's 46 Republicans will reject Cruz's high-stakes maneuver that has been embraced by the Republican-led House of Representatives.
"I think most Republicans believe, no matter how sincere you are about defunding Obamacare, that this approach would blow up in our face," Graham told Reuters in a brief hallway interview on Capitol Hill.
A government shutdown could ruin the party's chances of winning back control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.
At the urging of Cruz and other legislators aligned with the anti-government Tea Party movement, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed the bill providing government funding but without money for Obamacare. Passage came on a party-line vote on Friday.
Since Cruz launched his bid, Republican senators and their aides have been unusually candid in their impatience with him, laying bare a deep split within the Republican Party.
"We will end up not shutting the government down and we will not defund Obamacare. That's how the movie ends," Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona told reporters.
As the Senate slowly moved through a debate that likely will lead to passing a government funding bill by Sunday, House Republicans continued to weigh their options once they receive the Senate's work.
Some congressional aides have said that a new round of House amendments were being weighed, possibly including one to repeal an unpopular medical device tax aimed at generating $30 billion in revenues over a decade to help pay for Obamacare subsidies.
SENATE PASSAGE POSSIBLE SUNDAY
The Senate is expected to pass a new bill by Sunday. It would then be returned to the House for concurrence. The chamber could then approve the Senate version or try to amend it - but would only have a day or so before current government funding expires.
At this point, it is unclear what the House Republican leadership would decide to do, generating plenty of questions and anxiety.
House Republican leaders have not informed rank-and-file members what the final stage of the fight over the spending bill will look like, according to an aide to one junior Republican.
"First and foremost, he doesn't want the government to shut down," the aide said, though adding that the lawmaker was under intense pressure from conservatives back home to stop Obamacare.
"He is definitely stressed," the aide said.
Once the battle over government funding bill is resolved, Congress will grapple with another fiscal crisis - a possible and unprecedented U.S. government default unless it agrees to raise the $16.7 trillion U.S. borrowing authority by sometime next month or early November.
Republicans are expected to place demands on any bill to increase the debt limit, including one to delay for a year implementation of Obamacare, now set to begin to kick in next month.
(Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai and David Lawder; Editing by Fred Barbash and Philip Barbara)