WASHINGTON — The threat of a government shutdown intensified Tuesday, as House GOP leaders moved toward stripping funding from President Obama’s landmark health initiative and setting up a stalemate with the Democratic Senate.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had hoped to keep the government open past Sept. 30 with relatively little fuss. But roughly 40 conservatives revolted. After a strategy session Tuesday, Boehner and his leadership team were being pushed into a more confrontational strategy that would fund the government into the new fiscal year only if Democrats agree to undermine Obama’s signature legislative achievement.
Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have ruled that out, leaving the parties hurtling toward an apparent impasse.
In less than two weeks — with the nation at war and authorities investigating a mass shooting at Washington’s Navy Yard — every federal agency from the Pentagon to the FBI is due to shut down unless Congress can reach an agreement. A shutdown would not only disrupt critical government services but whip up a panic just as lawmakers confront the next major deadline on their fall calender: the need to raise the $16.7 trillion federal debt limit.
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Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Elmendorf said Tuesday that the Treasury Department is likely to run out of cash to pay its bills “sometime between late October and mid-November,” confirming independent estimates. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has so far been vague about that deadline, telling Congress only that he would exhaust his ability to juggle the books by mid-October.
Despite the risk of widespread economic turmoil, political leaders have yet to begin talks to resolve the impasse. Obama has repeatedly said he would not negotiate over the debt limit, arguing that it is the responsibility of Congress to make sure the Treasury can pay bills incurred by past Congresses. Last month, the White House and a group of Senate Republicans agreed to suspend discussions about a broader budget deal.
Meanwhile, both Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have said it’s up to the House to make the first move to keep the government open. Reid on Tuesday called on Boehner to resist “this relentless obstruction … led and directed by the tea party.”
“None of the Republicans are willing to stand up to these anarchists,” Reid told reporters. Of the Affordable Care Act, he added: “They’re obsessed with a bill that passed four years ago, a bill that was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. They can’t get over that.”
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and a band of House conservatives are leading the charge to block implementation of the law, along with outside groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth.
Upon returning to Washington, D.C., after a long weekend at home, Boehner and his leadership team met for an hour Tuesday afternoon in the Capitol. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement that no decisions about strategy “have been made, or will be made, until House Republican members meet and talk tomorrow” morning.
But other participants in the meeting said it became clear that a government-funding plan unveiled last week by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., which would have avoided a showdown over the Affordable Care Act, could not rally enough GOP votes to pass.
“It was not [well] received in the conference,” said Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., who attended Tuesday’s meeting representing the massive freshman class of Republicans elected in 2010. Instead, Southerland said, GOP leaders were leaning toward satisfying their right wing, fully aware that such a move would invite rejection in the Senate.
The Senate, then, would be likely to respond with its own funding plan that jettisoned the anti-Obamacare provisions. Senate Democrats could also make other changes, such as rolling back some of the automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, that Republicans view as their most significant recent legislative achievement.
That would leave the House to make an 11th-hour decision: Swallow the Senate’s changes or shut the government down.