A bicameral sparring match between Democratic and Republican leaders — as well as within the GOP conferences in both chambers — raged on Thursday over funding the government and paying its debts, with little prospect of a resolution before the weekend.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and his lieutenants sought to shift the focus of their fiscal fights with Senate Democrats to a battle over raising the limit on the nation's borrowing authority. But their strategy ran into opposition from many of their own in the House Republican conference.
Objections, concerns, and refusals to commit from 20 to 30 conservatives ultimately squashed plans in the House to proceed by Friday or Saturday to a vote on the leadership-crafted debt-ceiling package. Leadership aides on Thursday night described the situation as "fluid" and said conversations with members were continuing.
Earlier Thursday, Boehner and other GOP leaders had emerged from a morning meeting with fellow House Republicans insisting they had not yet given up the effort to include language to defund Obamacare in the ongoing negotiations with the Senate over a stopgap spending bill.
The Senate is expected to strip out that language, and return the measure to the House — a dance that will continue through this weekend as the deadline nears for a continuing resolution to keep government funded past Tuesday.
The upper chamber plans to move forward on the CR on Friday with a series of four votes, including one on cloture and one on deleting the House language to defund Obamacare.
In the House, Republicans said that during a closed-door meeting of the conference, Boehner and other leaders sought to move toward strategy on the debt ceiling, which will be reached in mid-October. That left members divided, with some questioning why the House would now act on a debt-ceiling vote before dealing with the revisions the Senate sends back in the House-passed CR. Others also complained about what they said were glaring omissions in key information presented to them about the debt-ceiling package itself.
"We're still trying to win on the CR," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. "So a lot of folks are wondering: Why do this when we're sitting here trying to decide what our next move might be on that?"
The House Rules Committee on Thursday did pass a rule allowing a debt-ceiling package to be brought up the same day it is introduced. The same rule also was extended to a revised CR from the Senate, and the committee agreed that the current two-part version of the farm bill could be merged in the House, allowing a conference to begin with the Senate, which passed its own farm bill in June.
Huelskamp and other House Republicans said the leaders have not yet provided a "score" of their proposed debt-ceiling bill's spending cuts and savings.
The bill, as of Thursday, would not call for a specific dollar increase in borrowing authority, but instead would suspend the ceiling through next year. Huelskamp and others said projections of next year's national debt, combined with the amount run up in the final three months of this year, would put the added borrowing needs at somewhere between $900 billion and $1 trillion.
At the same time, Huelskamp said any offsets or cuts in the proposal would not even approach those numbers. "I don't see hardly any cuts in there," he said.
Conservatives, in what has become somewhat pompously known as the "Williamsburg Accord," had agreed in January at a retreat in Virginia to postpone the debt-ceiling debate while fiscal policies were enacted to put the federal budget on the path to 10-year balance. Huelskamp said he's among those who can't determine whether this debt-ceiling package complies with that promise, but that it doesn't appear to do so.
Huelskamp and others also said the package appears to violate Boehner's own rule that "dollar-for-dollar" cuts or reforms be included in any debt-ceiling increase.
Instead, Huelskamp said, the focus seems to be more on ways to attract enough GOP votes by attaching a long list of unrelated items to the bill — such as ramped-up approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, increased offshore oil and gas production, repeal of a medical-device tax, and an increase in means testing for Medicare.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has telegraphed all week that he would strip language from the House CR that would defund Obamacare, despite indications that House Republicans will bounce the legislation back to the Senate with the provision restored.
Reid tried unsuccessfully to hold votes on Thursday night, but Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, alongside Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, objected to Reid's unanimous-consent request because they wanted a vote on Friday.
The scene crackled with drama, as Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the reason Cruz and Lee wanted a Friday vote was because they had notified outside groups it would be then. Lee said it was because the public had been expecting a Friday or Saturday vote. Corker suggested it was more important to send the bill back to the House so Republicans there would have time to add what they wanted back into the bill.
At one point during the debate, senators were admonished that they must address each other in the third person.
"I'm sorry we're going to have to vote tomorrow and not today," Reid said afterward.
The CR that comes out of the Senate and goes back to the House appears to be Reid's final offer. "We're going to have a clean CR," he said. "That's what we're going to vote for. We're not going to play any of their games."
The implication is that the public would blame the GOP for a shutdown, Democrats hope. To illustrate the point, Senate Democrats appeared at a news conference with a large television screen showing a countdown toward a government shutdown, which would begin Tuesday, the start of the new fiscal year.
"Over in the House, the hostage-takers on the Far Right won out, and the Republican leadership caved and handed them the keys and let them run the show," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., before signaling to the screen. "As a result, the House pushed us to four days away — four days, 11 hours, 33 minutes, and seven seconds until Republicans shut down the government."
Most Senate Republicans say they do not want a shutdown and do want to fund the government — minus Obamacare.
Corker tried to downplay the division, suggesting it was only Lee and Cruz slowing the Senate down on this issue.
"It's not the entire Republican side," Corker said. "I think most Republicans — I know all Republicans other than two — would actually like to give the House the opportunity to respond in an appropriate way."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has also said he wants the Senate to finish its business as soon as possible so the House could act.
As for how the Senate will dispatch with the debt ceiling, Reid again said Democrats would not negotiate. Asked whether Republicans offered to turn off sequestration if Democrats would negotiate on the debt ceiling, Reid answered decisively: No.