Tourists walk past the US Capitol in Washington DC on Monday. (AFP)
Washington, Sept. 30: The Senate today quickly rejected a House proposal to fund the government only if Democrats agreed to delay or undo parts of the 2010 health law, as House Republicans gathered in the Capitol to plot their response in the escalating budget fight.
Within minutes of convening just after 2pm (local time), the Senate, on a 54-to-46 vote, followed through on Democratic threats to strip the health care provisions from a measure passed by the House early yesterday and send it back to the House.
“We’re at the brink,” Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said after the vote.
But House Republicans showed no sign of backing down, signalling a readiness to shut down the federal government over the health law.
With its last offer rejected, House Republicans will attach language to a government funding bill that would delay the mandate that individuals obtain health insurance and would force members of Congress, their staffs and White House staff members to purchase their health insurance on the new exchanges without any government subsidies.
The decision makes it more likely that a partial shutdown of the government will commence just after midnight, barring a last-minute retreat by the House.
Republican members of the House gathered in a conference room in a basement of the Capitol to discuss strategy after the Senate rejection of demands to delay implementation of the health care law for a year and repeal a tax on medical devices that helps pay for the law’s expansion of coverage to the uninsured.
The confrontation — which threatens to close federal offices and facilities, idling thousands of workers around the country — stems from an unusual push by Republicans to undo a law that has been on the books for three years, through a presidential election, and that the Supreme Court largely upheld in 2012. A major part of the law is set to take effect tomorrow: the opening of insurance exchanges, where people without health insurance will be able to obtain coverage.
Barring a last-minute agreement by the two parties, parts of the federal government that President Obama does not deem essential will shut down at 12.01am (local time) tomorrow.
Republicans argue that the Obama administration has itself delayed elements of the law. They say that at a minimum it should be postponed for a year to eliminate what they see as bureaucratic problems and harmful consequences for businesses and individuals. Republicans also say they have compromised by retreating from their insistence that all money be stripped from the health law.
Democrats say that Republicans are being driven by the most extreme elements of their party to use the federal budget to extract concessions on health care that they could not win through the traditional legislative process.
They say that the push to halt the health care law just as Americans will be able to sign up for coverage is outrageous, and that a government-wide shutdown will threaten the nation’s slow economic recovery and cause widespread and unnecessary disruptions for the public. Democrats have won support from some Senate Republicans, who see a shutdown as damaging to their party.
“I still hold up a small hope that the Republicans will come to their senses, that the mainstream Republicans will say ‘enough already,’” Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said on Morning Joe on MSNBC today, urging the House Republican leadership to put a spending bill without policy prescriptions to a vote on the floor.
“The question is, does Speaker Boehner need to engage in something like the ancient practice of sacrifice, this time to the Right-wing gods? Do we have to sacrifice the economy, help for millions of middle-class people?”
On the House floor this morning, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio showed no signs of relenting, arguing that the health care law “is not ready for prime time”.
“The House has done its work,” he said. “We passed a bill on Saturday night — sent it to the United States Senate — that would delay Obamacare for one year, and would eliminate permanently the medical device tax that is costing us tens of thousands of jobs that are being shipped overseas.”
Boehner criticised the Senate for not working over the weekend.