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Days From Shutdown, Impasse Freezes Congress

Days From Shutdown, Impasse Freezes Congress

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - September 27, 2013

Just a handful of days -- and an ideological chasm -- stand between the U.S. Congress and a government shutdown on Oct.1. The long foreseen deadline has triggered little but name-calling, a fruitless talkathon, and a nervous federal workforce. As the sun began to set behind the Capitol on Thursday, not only was a path forward unclear, but a debt ceiling deadline was inching closer too.

With the Senate poised to send a “clean” funding bill -- that is, stripped of a Republican-supported provision to defund Obamacare -- back to the House by the end of the week, Speaker John Boehner said his conference would reject such a measure. “I do not see that happening,” Boehner said when asked if the House would shoot back the plain bill.

Thus continues this high stakes game of hot potato.

“I’m concerned,” Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, told reporters outside the House chamber when asked about the likelihood of a government shutdown, something that hasn’t occurred in nearly two decades. “I’m not at the point of pants on fire, but I’m concerned.”

With the funding bill in limbo, the House is already shifting its sights to the next deadline coming down the pike: Oct. 17, when Congress must lift the debt ceiling or else plunge the nation into default for the first time in history. Boehner introduced a debt-ceiling plan Thursday that has a goodie bag of Republican demands attached, including a delay in implementing Obamacare, approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and spending reforms. But that is an opening offer the White House won’t accept.

“The president says, ‘I’m not going to negotiate.’ Well, I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way,” Boehner told reporters after a closed-door meeting with his conference.

But the speaker doesn’t have the votes for his debt ceiling plan, as members protested its lack of entitlement reforms and other debt-related provisions. It is unclear when the House will vote on the measure, which GOP leaders thought would give them greater leverage if a funding bill without the Obamacare stipulation is approved.

The Senate moved Thursday afternoon to speed up the processing of its bill, to the objection of Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, who want a Friday vote. The two lawmakers sparred on the Senate floor with their GOP colleague Bob Corker, who accused the pair of grandstanding instead of moving quickly to afford their House counterparts more time for subsequent steps in this ungainly legislative dance.

Even if the House receives the bill more quickly than anticipated, Congress will likely run out the clock. GOP members leaving their weekly conference in the basement of the Capitol told reporters they would not vote for the clean bill the Senate was preparing to send them, and want something with exchange value in any bill they would eventually return to the Senate.

Boehner would not discuss what kind of riders he might add. Discussions among the lawmakers have included a repeal of the medical device tax (which helps pay for the Affordable Care Act; such a repeal has earned support from several Senate Democrats) and a measure that would cancel exemptions that allow lawmakers, staffers and the executive branch to avoid the law’s health care exchanges. There has also been talk of proposing a one-week resolution to fund the government and buy lawmakers more time, though such a move is unlikely to shift the parties out of their corners.

While the device tax repeal enjoys bipartisan support, the White House and congressional Democrats says they will not accept any conditions to the spending bill, having already made concessions, they say, on the spending levels in it.

In any case, those two conditions don’t appear adequate to satisfy conservatives, who still want the Obamacare fight attached to the spending bill. “It would have to be more serious than that,” said Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, referring to the two suggested riders. Huelskamp said he would accept a delay of Obamacare too.

“Fight Obamacare on the [continuing resolution]. I don’t know why we’d go to the debt ceiling now,” he said. Huelskamp pointed to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who told Bloomberg on Thursday he would support a delay of the individual mandate, the health care law’s centerpiece, given that the administration has already delayed the mandate for businesses. “That is a crack in the door,” Heulskamp said. “We’re making progress. He’s getting the same calls we are.”

Manchin, who was not in the Senate when the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, clarified that though he did not support the mandate, he doesn’t believe it should be used in the shutdown fight, noting. “I will not vote to shut down the government.”

Boehner could move a clean CR to the floor, but would need the help of Democrats --who are in no hurry to bail him out. “I think he could, and I believe it would pass,” said Dent. But the move could be risky for Boehner, who has been criticized by conservative members, threatening him with his job. “The House has got a choice: We can pass it clean, or when we send something back, it’s got to be something the Senate can accept,” said Dent, suggesting the device tax repeal.

But such steps are not that easy for members of either party.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats and the White House have also dug in their heels. White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer told CNN the president would not sign a funding bill that strips out the device tax or delays Obamacare.

“Speaker Boehner's job is to pass laws, not bills that have no chance of being law,” he said. “If they include something that he knows for a fact cannot pass the Senate, then he is making a decision to shut down the government.”

But Republicans are flipping that argument back at the other side. “The American people don’t want the president’s health care bill and they don’t want the government to shut down,” Boehner said. “It’s time for the Senate to listen and pass the bill that we sent over there.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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