House Sends Spending Bill Back to Senate, Brings Shutdown Closer

A statue of George Washington stands in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Sunday morning, Sept. 29, 2013 as a government shutdown looms. A statue of George Washington stands in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Sunday morning, Sept. 29, 2013 as a government shutdown looms. Cliff Owen/AP

The House approved a measure early Sunday morning that would fund the government through Dec. 15 while delaying implementation of Obamacare for one year, a politically risky maneuver that united House Republicans but pushes the federal government closer to a shutdown.

The legislation—which also includes an amendment to repeal the medical device tax and a separate provision to pay military members in the event of a shutdown—passed easily, putting the continuing resolution to keep the government running past Monday back in the Senate's court.

"They might have to come back from their vacation," said Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., who has led the charge for an Obamacare delay, before the vote. "Harry Reid has to now decide if he's going to continue forcing this bad law on the American people."

The Senate majority leader, though, has already dismissed the House's plan outright. The Senate, he announced Saturday, will reject the delay of the Affordable Care Act as well as amendment to cut the medical device tax, which Reid last week called "stupid."

"Today's vote by House Republicans is pointless," Reid said in a statement. "Republicans must decide whether to pass the Senate's clean CR, or force a Republican government shutdown."

To avoid a partial government shutdown, both chambers of Congress must reach an agreement by Tuesday, the start of the new fiscal year. The Senate adjourned on Friday until Monday afternoon, and senators are not expected to return early to respond to the House's latest proffer.

But according to a Senate aide and a House Democrat, Reid will move to table the House amendments to delay Obamacare and repeal the medical device tax. Reid also plans to shorten the time-frame for continued government funding under the bill and have the CR expire Nov. 15 rather than Dec. 15.

That means the Senate is poised to send back exactly the same language it sent to the House on Friday, according to the aide. And that would leave House Republicans in a position of accepting a so-called "clean CR" or forcing a government shutdown on Tuesday.

According to House Republicans, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and his lieutenants already are considering how to devise an eleventh-hour response that could be acceptable to a majority of conservatives in his conference if the Senate does not budge.

One option, members said, is to revise the CR yet again—this time to include an amendment from Sen. David Vitter, R-La., that would prevent members of Congress and their staffers from receiving exemptions from key Obamacare measures.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said he would support that strategy, because it would "make them live under this hellish law."

Other Republicans, however, were noncommittal on that approach. "It just depends on how many people are controlled by Ted Cruz," sniped Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a moderate who has vocally opposed of the campaign against Obamacare mounted by the junior Republican senator from Texas.

For now, at least, House Republicans insist that their conference is unified—a claim supported by the votes taken early Sunday morning.

The floor action consisted of three separate votes. The House first voted 248 to 174 to repeal the tax on medical devices, with 17 Democrats joining 231 Republicans in support. The House then voted 231-192 to delay Obamcare's implementation by a year, with two defections from each party. A third vote was unanimous to continue appropriations for military pay in the event of a shutdown.

Hours before the votes, cheers erupted in a closed-door GOP meeting Saturday afternoon after Boehner made it clear the House was not giving up in the standoff with the Senate and the White House.

"Let's roll," an exuberant Rep. John Culberson, R-Tex., shouted as colleagues cheered Boehner. An unfortunate analogy, perhaps, because Culberson later explained he was evoking the battle cry of passengers who tried to wrest control of United Airlines Flight 93 from terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. That was the fourth plane to go down in that day's terrorist attacks, crashing in a Pennsylvania field and killing all on board.

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, went on the House floor shortly after the meeting and called Boehner "our great speaker."

Those in the room Saturday said there was uncertainty over what Boehner was going to say about the House's options, given the Senate's rejection of an earlier House CR containing language to defund the Affordable Care Act. That language was stripped out by Reid on Friday, providing a "clean" bill dealing only with government funding.

But, as lawmakers described it, Boehner walked up to the microphone and proceeded to matter-of-factly detail what his new strategy would entail.

"People went bonkers," with approval, said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz. "They were very excited."

And as the meeting adjourned, the accolades for Boehner kept on coming. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, a vocal critic of leadership who just two days ago trashed Boehner's proposed debt-ceiling maneuver, exited the meeting and flashed a big "thumbs up" sign.

Even Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who often clashes with leadership and is known to regularly shun the media, ran toward a horde of reporters and declared: "It's a fabulous bill!"

Despite the enthusiasm, it's clear that given the warnings from the White House and Reid, Sunday's votes could bring the government one giant step closer to a shutdown. But House Republicans—including some who met privately this week with Cruz—said Saturday they were not worried that extending the battle with the Senate might send the nation spiraling into a shutdown.

"Republicans will probably be blamed for whatever happens," Franks said. "So, what remains for us is to do the right thing."

In fact, some GOP lawmakers argued that by acting quickly, they were doing the Senate a favor.

"We're here for the weekend, we might as well work and get our job done—and give them plenty of time to get their job done," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La.

Added Rep. Steve Scalise, chairman of the Republican Study Committee: "We have a good plan ... and we're moving quickly. The Senate, if they're serious about not wanting a government shutdown, they ought to address this quickly."

The entirety of the House Republican Conference seemed supportive of the bill, and some members went as far as to predict unanimous GOP support for the proposal. (The only Republican defector on the bill the House sent to the Senate earlier this month was Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia, who opposed the continued sequester cuts written into the bill.)

There is also optimism among Republicans that some Senate Democrats will rally to support certain provisions of the bill. Multiple GOP lawmakers specifically cited the support for delaying Obamacare coming from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and suggested that other red-state Democrats would be pressured to follow suit.

Lawmakers said that the GOP bill and its amendments will be structured in such a way that if the Senate strips out the Obamacare language, it would require the bill to come back to the House. "The speaker made that very clear," Salmon said. "If they change the bill in any way, it would have to come back to the House."

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