GOP fight spreads to the Senate

Greg Nash

Infighting within the House GOP conference is threatening to spread to the Senate, where Republicans are now facing their own dilemma over a government shutdown.

Republicans in the upper chamber must decide whether to bolster the House GOP’s standoff with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) over a government funding measure.

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If Senate Republicans were to help Reid pass a clean stopgap spending measure, stripped of language to defund ObamaCare, they would be accused of undercutting the House. If they were to block the Senate Democrats’ version of the government funding bill, Democrats would accuse them of voting to shut down the federal government.

“I have no idea what the state of play is going to be and I’m not going to take a position until I see what comes over from the House, what our strategy is for dealing with it,” said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a Republican centrist.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told colleagues Wednesday he will move a stopgap spending measure that also defunds the Affordable Care Act, using a potential government shutdown as leverage.

Federal funding will run out at the end of September without action from Congress.

Reid plans to replace the House package with a “clean” continuing resolution that keeps federal agencies open without interfering with the new healthcare reform law.  

“We’re going to pass a clean CR without any of the defunding stuff,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Reid is betting he can attract enough Republican votes to pass a Senate bill that repudiates the House effort to defund Obama’s signature healthcare initiative.

“We are completely united on this issue. We’re not defunding ObamaCare and we’re not negotiating on the debt ceiling,” Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Reid’s deputy, told reporters Wednesday. “We believe — at least we hope — that the mainstream, reasonable Republicans, as they get closer and closer to the deadline, will come to their senses.

“If they think we’re going to back off, they’re wrong, they’re on a different planet,” he added.

Boehner also presented a plan to his conference that would link legislation to raise the nation’s debt limit to a one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act. The nation will reach its borrowing limit in mid-October, according to administration officials.

Reid will also insist on moving debt-limit legislation that does not affect the implementation of healthcare reform.

Senate Republicans discussed what to do about the government funding and debt-limit measures on Wednesday but emerged from a meeting without a unified position.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) warned in July that threatening a government shutdown in hopes of defunding ObamaCare was “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

He held his fire on Wednesday, however, to avoid undercutting House Republicans, declining to say how he would vote on the stopgap spending measure.

“It depends on how long it goes on for. There are so many variables that it’s an impossible question to answer,” he said.

Tea Party-affiliated conservatives, by contrast, did not shy away from touting their support for Boehner’s aggressive gambit.

“The spending proposal the Speaker put forth today shows that if the American people are united, Washington does listen,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in a statement. “We encourage the House to approve this legislation quickly and I applaud Speaker Boehner for his leadership on this proposal.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) predicted some of his Senate GOP colleagues would defect.

“Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so,” he said.

One Republican senator, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal dynamics of his conference, said Reid will probably win over enough Republican votes to strip the defunding language from the stopgap measure.

Another Republican senator said he is “keeping his powder dry” to see if Boehner can muster enough votes to pass the government funding and debt-limit bills out of the House.

Some Senate Republicans think Boehner should retrench his ambitions and perhaps instead attach to the continuing resolution a proposal to repeal the medical device tax established by the Affordable Care Act.

“That has bipartisan support, while defunding ObamaCare is never going to happen because Democrats will block it,” said a second GOP senator.

White House officials, however, have sent a clear message to the Senate that Obama will not accept any tinkering with the healthcare law in exchange for keeping the government running or its borrowing authority intact.

“I’ve talked to the president seven or eight times on this, he’s as strong as can be,” said Schumer. “Our Democratic Caucus is completely united. You’re not going to hear a whisper, ‘Well, maybe we should negotiate.’ ”

The Senate Republican leadership thinks there may be more pressure on Democratic senators to vote for a one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act in return for raising the debt limit because the law is unpopular with some labor unions.

While unions such as the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO do not like ObamaCare, they have not asked Democrats to help delay its implementation, according to one senior Democrat.

“None have come to me,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.