Drama Intensifies Over Government Funding and Debt Ceiling on Both Sides of Capitol

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, center, and GOP leaders, speak to reporters after a closed-door strategy session at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013. Pressure is building on fractious Republicans over legislation to prevent a partial government shutdown, as the Democratic-led Senate is expected to strip a tea party-backed plan to defund  the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as "Obamacare," from their bill. From left to right are House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
National Journal
Billy House and Michael Catalini
Billy House Michael Catalini
Sept. 26, 2013, 5:23 p.m.

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.

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