Senate Will Proceed With Debate on Measure to Keep Government Open

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The drama surrounding a possible government shutdown next week unfolded in the Senate on Wednesday as many predicted, with time expiring on the anti-Obamacare talkathon by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and the chamber voting unanimously to allow debate on a House-passed stopgap spending bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., succeeded in sticking with his plan to win 60 votes in favor of cloture to debate the House bill, which would keep government running past the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year, but also would defund the 2010 health care reform law. Democrats now plan to use a simple 51-vote majority to pass a version that strips away the language defunding the Affordable Care Act.

“Every hour we delay here is an hour closer to shutting down the government,” Reid said after the vote, expressing hope of expediting the coming 30 hours of debate under Senate rules. “A shutdown will hurt our gross domestic product by tens of millions of dollars,” he said. “And it will lead up to the real battle we’ll have over raising the debt ceiling.”

On Tuesday, Reid had agreed to attach to the continuing resolution a proposal from Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, extending the government’s funding only until Nov. 15. This would be a month earlier than the House bill, which would extend funding until Dec. 15. Mikulski’s goal is also to end the across-the-board budget cuts from sequestration, which is not a goal Republicans share.

Cruz’s tactical monopolization of the Senate floor -- technically not a filibuster because the time limit was always in sight -- portrayed the health care law as a job killer that “no one” in America wants. With help from a few colleagues asking him questions to give him a rest, he encouraged Republicans to remember the children’s book “The Little Engine That Could.” And he said the Senate process for blocking the Republicans’ move to defund Obamacare was “like the World Wrestling Federation, a rigged, predetermined outcome.”

But Reid rejected Cruz’s requests for more speaking time, a 60-vote threshold for removing the defunding provision and a vote scheduled for Friday rather than Saturday “when Americans are focused on other things like watching football.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., lent some support to Cruz’s position, saying, “Obamacare is worse than we said it would be, a complete mess. This train is picking up speed. Even the administration is having a terrible time defending this law. “

The attacks on Obamacare were countered by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who accused Cruz of wanting to deny 50 million Americans health care. “Isn’t health insurance an improvement over no insurance?” Durbin asked. “Those who are opposed to the health care law want it to descend into chaos.”

Many Republicans also were critical of Cruz, for taking on what they saw as an unrealistic task. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., reviewed the Senate’s process for passing the health care law in 2010, noting “25 straight days on the floor, with passage on Christmas Eve,” after hundreds of amendments offered by both parties. “We fought as hard as we could in a fair and honest manner, but we lost,” he said. “Yet I’m proud of the effort we made, and of the other side of the aisle for allowing that debate to take place. Elections have consequences.” McCain expressed particular dismay over Cruz’s earlier comparison of the fight to defund Obamacare to the 1940s debate over appeasement in the buildup to the war against Nazi aggression.

When Cruz’s talk was over, Reid said, “With all due respect, I’m not sure we learned anything new. For lack of a better way to describe this, it was a big waste of time. The American people know that every hour he speaks pushes us closer to a Republican government shutdown.”

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