Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has rejected Sen. Ted Cruz's approach to defunding Obamacare as the Senate steers toward a weekend showdown over a temporary measure to keep the government running.
Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, are pushing for Republicans to vote against ending debate on a continuing resolution from the House that will extend funding for the government but defund the Affordable Care Act. Their strategy is to deprive Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of the ability to strip out the Obamacare language.
"Senator McConnell supports the House Republicans' bill and will not vote to block it, since it defunds Obamacare and funds the government without increasing spending by a penny," McConnell's office said in a statement late Monday. "He will also vote against any amendment that attempts to add Obamacare funding back into the House Republicans' bill."
McConnell's statement helped settle a nagging question for some Republicans: Do they vote against ending debate on the House continuing resolution — thereby voting against legislation they support — or vote in favor of cloture, setting up an opportunity for Reid to strip the defunding language?
Cruz, the architect of a plan to shutter the government unless Obamacare is defunded, has pledged to do anything possible to block a House bill that doesn't contain language to defund Obamacare, even though the Texas Republican and his party do not have the votes. How many Republicans side with Cruz and Lee isn't clear.
Republicans such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Richard Burr of North Carolina, have publicly criticized the strategy. Senate Democrats say they count 24 Republicans critical of the duo's tactics.
Meanwhile, Capitol Hill denizens will be preparing to work this weekend as the Senate haltingly throttles toward a vote to fund the government beyond the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30 and into December.
The Senate could vote on a procedural motion to consider the House bill as soon as Wednesday, according to a Democratic aide. That sets up another procedural vote to end debate on the bill, likely on Saturday. At that point, Reid will introduce an amendment to strip out the Obamacare language. The Democratic thinking assumes that Reid will get 60 votes to end debate, thereby blocking Cruz, and would move the legislation back to the House on Saturday or Sunday.
Reid filed the motion to proceed on Monday and said the timing of the first vote is now "on autopilot," so the latest it will occur is noon Wednesday, though it could be moved up an hour or two if a majority agrees.
Cruz declined to say whether he would take up all the time allotted for debate.
On the question of the top-line funding level contained in the CR — another sticking point between Democrats and Republicans — Senate Democratic aides acknowledge that the House's $986 billion figure is likely to stand and that Senate Democrats don't have the votes to force their preference, a $1.058 trillion level.
The legislative jockeying to keep the government funded is not the only place in which partisan positions over the Affordable Care Act are on display. On Tuesday, a similar line in the sand will be formally drawn by House Republicans in return for keeping the nation out of default and able to continue borrowing.
A debt-ceiling bill will be filed Tuesday with the House Rules Committee and publicly posted, setting up a timetable that would enable the House to vote on the measure as early as Friday. House members are set to arrive back in Washington on Wednesday.
The nation's $16.7 trillion borrowing limit will not require an extension until mid-October, according to Treasury. But for some Republicans — including top House leaders — a debt-ceiling bill is a better avenue for making demands than the CR currently before the Senate.
As described by House Republicans and aides, the bill would suspend the United States borrowing limit until December 2014, rather than raising it by a specific amount. The bill will also contain a bevy of other Republican measures, including one that would delay the implementation of Obamacare by a year. Others include language to redo the U.S. tax code, increase means-testing for Medicare, authorize the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, and promote energy production offshore and on federal lands.
President Obama and congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have said they will not negotiate over the need for the nation to pay its bills.
Obama is likely to meet with congressional leaders this week after he returns from New York City, where he is addressing the United Nations General Assembly, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.
"Here's the bottom line," Carney said. "Congress needs to act responsibly in order to ensure that the government does not shut down. Unfortunately, the House acted irresponsibly as an opening salvo in this engagement by passing a continuing resolution that has no chance of becoming law. And now we'll have to see how this plays out."