As Sen. Ted Cruz vowed to talk on the Senate floor about defunding Obamacare till he can no longer stand, Senate Democrats said they now want a Nov. 15 expiration date for legislation to fund the government and avoid a shutdown.
Such are the latest moves in the slow-moving political drama at play in the Senate — and soon to move back to the House — as lawmakers debate a continuing resolution to keep government funded beyond the Sept. 30 close of the fiscal year.
The House bill being debated in the Senate, which contains the language the Texas Republican is defending to defund the Affordable Care Act, is expected to pass in the Senate stripped of its Obamacare provision. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he expects to vote Sunday on the resolution, which will likely contain a topline spending level of $986 billion.
House lawmakers will be back in session on Wednesday, and their leaders have instructed them to anticipate working through the weekend.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner would not speculate Tuesday on whether the House Republican majority might go along with a CR that ends in November rather than December.
"We'll deal with whatever the Senate passes when they pass it," spokesman Michael Steel said. "There's no point in speculating before that."
Reid has declared that the Senate will hold a vote to end debate Wednesday — ending Cruz's stand — and he plans to remove the language defunding the Affordable Care Act thereafter.
As Cruz made what could be his curtain call for this act, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell played his foil on Tuesday, asking why he would vote — as Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah want — against a House bill that he and other conservatives support because it contains the defunding provision. McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said they will vote with Reid to end debate.
But that did not stop Cruz, who continued talking — occasionally relieved by Lee and Republican Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Pat Roberts of Kansas — through Tuesday evening.
"We ought to have all 100 senators on this floor around the clock," Cruz said. "The Senate floor is largely empty. Everyone's schedules are apparently busy enough that standing up against Obamacare doesn't make the priority list."
Cruz's strategy is to block Reid from gutting the Obamacare language, and he has won the support of outside groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth. But Senate Republican leaders rejected the strategy, and Reid has the votes to cut off debate.
"We'd all be hard-pressed to explain why we were opposed to a bill we were in favor of," McConnell said. "And invoking cloture on a bill that defunds Obamacare, it doesn't raise taxes and respects the Budget Control Act, it strikes me as a no-brainer."
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats took the opportunity Tuesday to cast the debate in terms of their policy preferences. Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said she favors a short-term measure with a November deadline. Less important, she and Reid said, was the actual top-line figure.
The House measure sets spending at $986 billion, which reflects the sequestration cuts. Senate Democrats have passed a budget that sets the figure at $1.058 trillion, which assumes sequestration is repealed.
"We don't want to talk about the number," Mikulski said. "We want to talk about the goal. You have to move our bill forward. Our first thing is to avoid a shutdown and a slam-down. We have a manufactured crisis here."
Reid agreed, pointing out that, no matter what is appropriated, the automatic cuts take effect in January. "I don't want to talk like a college professor here, but listen, it doesn't matter what that top number is," Reid said.
"The bigger issue is replacing sequester for next year and getting this to a point where we can work on the long term," said Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
The Senate could wrap up before Sunday, but that would require an agreement not to use all of the debate time allotted by the rules. Right now, that seems unlikely. But sending the bill back to the House before the weekend would allow House GOP leaders more time to counter Democratic measures in the bill, which explains McConnell's willingness to wrap up.
"My own view is it would be to the advantage of our colleagues in the House, who are in the majority, to shorten the process," McConnell said. "And if the majority leader were to ask us to shorten the process, I would not object."
Boehner is expected to meet privately with GOP leaders Wednesday, and with the entire GOP conference in a closed-door meeting on Thursday.
A House GOP aide said that one idea being "tossed around" by House Republican leaders is to attach a one-year delay of Obamacare's individual mandate to the CR passed this coming weekend by the Senate, and send it right back.
But any such plan is not set in stone, the aide said, and with the House facing next week's deadline to avert a shutdown, there are questions about whether there is enough time for such a last-minute tactic.
Also on Wednesday, House Republicans intend to formally introduce their version of a bill to address the looming debt-ceiling deadline. The nation's $16.7 trillion borrowing limit will not require an extension until mid-October, according to Treasury, but a vote on the Republican bill could come as early as Friday.
Some Republicans — including top House leaders — say the debt-ceiling debate may offer a better venue for making demands to delay Obamacare than the continuing resolution to fund the government.