WASHINGTON — The U.S. government appeared Sunday to be on the verge of shutting down for the first time in nearly two decades as House leaders were running out of time and options to keep it open.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., declined to say on “Fox News Sunday” whether Republicans would consider the only plan that President Obama and other Democratic leaders insist they will accept: a simple bill that funds federal agencies without dismantling any part of Obama’s signature 2010 health care law. Instead, he said, Republicans were headed in a different direction, one likely to set up yet another late-night showdown.
McCarthy predicted that the House will “send another provision not to shut the government down but to fund it. And it will have a few other options in there for the Senate to look at.”
Unlike other budget crises of the past three years, this one was unfolding in slow motion. The halls of the Capitol were dark Sunday. There were no negotiations, and neither the House nor the Senate was in session.
The next move belonged to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has vowed to reject measures that the House approved early Sunday to delay the health law for one year, repeal a tax on medical devices and guarantee that paychecks are sent to active-duty military service members, even in the event of a shutdown.
Senators are hardly rushing back to Washington. They are not due at the Capitol until lunchtime Monday, when Reid will move to table the House amendments. That exercise requires a simple majority and can be accomplished solely with Democratic votes.
By midafternoon, House GOP leaders are likely to again be facing a decision about how to handle the simple six-week government funding bill that the Senate approved last week.
On Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, fumed about Reid’s lack of urgency. “If the Senate stalls until Monday afternoon . . . it would be an act of breathtaking arrogance,” Boehner said in a written statement.
Behind the scenes, however, House Republicans still had not figured out how to respond.
Among the options, according to senior GOP aides:
Trying again to repeal the medical-device tax. The tax, a 2.3 percent levy on sales of medical devices such as hip implants and defibrillators, is projected to raise about $30 billion over the next decade to help cover the cost of expanding health-insurance coverage.
Device manufacturers have complained, and neither party is wild about the tax. Early Sunday, 17 Democrats voted with House Republicans to repeal it. Earlier this year, the Senate voted 79 to 20 to repeal and replace it.
Still, repealing the tax would not stab at the heart of the health care law, and it is not clear how much support the strategy would muster among House conservatives. Meanwhile, even many Democrats who have campaigned against the tax say they will not break ranks on the government-funding bill.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., for example, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he is willing to discuss the tax, but “not with a gun to my head, not with the prospect of shutting down the government.”
Attacking a different part of the health care law, such as a special board created to keep Medicare costs low. The Independent Payment Advisory Board was derided as a “death panel” during the 2009 debate over the health law. It remains so politically toxic that congressional Republicans have refused to recommend members. But this option would probably face the same hurdles as repealing the device tax.
Proposing to eliminate health insurance subsidies for lawmakers and their staffs. This idea is so explosive on Capitol Hill that aides in both parties say it would amount to a declaration of all-out war. It probably has no hope of passage. But if the House could approve it, Senate Democrats would be left to take the blame for shutting down the government to keep their own health benefits.
Another advantage: It would throw a bone to right-wing groups that have declared the long-standing employer subsidies a “special exemption” now that lawmakers are required to enter the new health-insurance exchanges.
Still, many rank-and-file Republicans — especially those who are not wealthy, are not married to working spouses with insurance or are caring for sick children — are opposed to this option. Senior GOP lawmakers and aides in several House leadership offices said the House is not likely to pursue it.
Forgetting about the add-ons — putting the Senate government funding bill on the floor and letting it pass with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes. This probably would have been easier two weeks ago. But after all the drama over defunding Obamacare, it is not clear House leaders could muster two dozen votes to help the chamber’s 200 Democrats pass the measure — at least not until conservatives have felt the pain of a government shutdown.
As Republican leaders mulled the possibilities, others in the GOP began bracing for the political fallout. A recent CBS News-New York Times poll found that 44 percent of the public would blame Republicans and 35 percent would blame Obama and the Democrats for a shutdown. Sixteen percent would blame both parties equally.
“Look, I don’t want a government shutdown,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has led the charge to use the threat of a shutdown to dismantle the health law. “I don’t think Harry Reid should shut down the government,” Cruz said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” implying that a shutdown would be entirely Reid’s decision.
About a quarter of the public supports the idea of shutting down the government to defund Obamacare. But more than half of conservative Republicans support it, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. For lawmakers in deep-red districts, that is the slice of public opinion that matters.
On Sunday, Republicans tended to argue that they were trying to compromise with Obama and the Democrats to avoid a shutdown while pursuing conservative principles.
“I have said all along it is not a good idea to shut down government,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said on “Face the Nation.” “But I also think that it is not a good idea to give the president 100 percent of what he wants on Obamacare.”
When host Bob Schieffer noted that Obamacare is already the law, Paul said that is why Republicans are offering a “new compromise.”
Instead of “getting rid of his signature achievement,” Paul said, Republicans want merely to delay it “to make sure that it doesn’t totally destroy the insurance market in our country.”About a quarter of the public supports the idea of shutting down the government to defund Obamacare. But more than half of conservative Republicans support it, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.