Government shutdown inches closer as GOP leaders delay vote in House

The federal government moved closer to the brink of a shutdown on Wednesday as House Republicans failed to quell a conservative rebellion and were forced to delay a vote on a stopgap spending bill. 

The party leadership said it needed more time to build support for a complex legislative proposal it presented to its members on Tuesday. But senior Republicans acknowledged that the plan lacked support from conservatives who are demanding the GOP take a harder line against President Obama’s signature healthcare law.

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“Obviously we don’t have 218 [votes] or we wouldn’t have pulled it,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the whip team who is close to leadership.

The plan devised by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) would link a resolution withholding funds for the healthcare reform law with a bill to keep the government running through mid-December.

If passed by the House, the Senate would have to vote on the healthcare measure before it could act on the spending bill, and the spending bill could still become law even if Senate Democrats were to vote down the defunding of ObamaCare.

Current funding for the federal government is set to run out on Sept. 30. Leaders can only afford 16 defections on their plan, which would presumably need to be passed without any Democratic votes. 

The trouble also raises questions about the debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department says must be raised by mid-October. 

Asked by a Hill reporter about his plan for the debt ceiling, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) chuckled and said: "Why don't you give me one so they can shoot it down too?"

The House is scheduled to recess during the last week of September, leaving only six legislative days before the end of the fiscal year. But that break could be canceled if a funding bill is not put in place.

“I would say it probably increases the chances that we would be here the last week of September,” Cole said of the vote delay. “I don’t know that it increases the chances of a shutdown.”

Democratic leaders mocked their Republican counterparts on Wednesday, saying the delay was more evidence of the GOP’s inability to govern.

“Today, the Republican record of dysfunction and disarray reached a new low,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

“The American people are witnessing yet another sign that Republicans can’t get their own act together, even when a government shutdown hangs in the balance. Now, they’ve simply wasted more time on partisan political games while refusing to work with Democrats to achieve positive results for America’s families and middle class.”

Buoyed by outside conservative groups, the right flank of the Republican Conference complained the Cantor plan did not go far enough.

During a closed-door meeting of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) on Wednesday, lawmakers pushed Cantor to insist on a one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act as part of the continuing resolution, and not merely a debt-limit increase likely to be needed in the next month.

“It’s a plan that gets us to where we want to be, and that’s a one-year delay of ObamaCare,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), chairman of the conservative group.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, presented a plan in which the GOP would offer to use savings from a delay in the implementation of the healthcare law to restore money to agencies hit hard by sequestration, according to one lawmaker present at the meeting.

“Making this a government shutdown-type confrontation is probably not our best strategy,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said following the RSC meeting.

“Our best strategy is to exchange away or swap away sequestration, let the administration have the dollars back from sequestration, in exchange for a full one-year delay of ObamaCare.”

Officially, Republican leadership aides said Cantor’s plan remained intact and that the debate over military strikes in Syria had left them little time to explain the proposal to members. But it is clear that changes are possible.

“Every reasonable idea is under consideration,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the party’s chief deputy whip.

The delay once again laid bare the deep divisions within the party over fiscal strategy. The split has been exacerbated in recent months by a group of Tea Party-aligned conservatives in the Senate who have encouraged their counterparts in the House to push Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership further to the right.

Republicans supportive of leadership warned that the conservative resistance would lead either to a government shutdown that would hurt the party politically or to legislation backed by Democrats with higher spending levels.

“I think there’s a number of people who don’t remember when the government was shut down last time,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said, referring to the budget battles of 1995 and 1996. “And who carried the burden of that? That was Republicans.”

“Now, I’m not saying they want to shut the government down. They want to defund ObamaCare,” Simpson added. “But if the inevitable result of the position you’re taking ... shuts the government down — then, yeah, you’re responsible.”

Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio) said proposals from conservatives that had more teeth and would directly defund the healthcare law stood no chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“Find me 60 votes in the Senate,” Tiberi said. “That’s what I would say. I’m with them philosophically — completely. But show me how you get 60 votes in the Senate. That’s the key.”

On the right, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) voiced frustration at what he characterized as a watered-down version of the policy that conservatives wanted: a single spending bill that would withhold funds for the healthcare law.

“Wouldn’t it be ironic if the government shuts down because our leadership won’t offer a bill that Republicans will vote for?” Massie said. “I mean, that’s what happened this week. Now we’re a week further into this because they put forward a bill that Republicans won’t vote for.”

Still, other conservatives said they were confident that the conference would ultimately coalesce around a plan that could pass with Republican votes.

“I am not worried about a scenario where the Republicans fall apart,” Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said. “I just want, as do many members, to see us put our best foot forward, and there are a number of us that are not convinced that the first play call that has been made by leadership is the best play call.”

Lummis said she and other conservatives wanted to find a way to vote on both the spending bill and the debt limit before the Sept. 30 deadline.

— Bernie Becker contributed.

This story was first posted at 1:41 and last updated at 9:29 p.m.