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September 22, 2014

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Three bargaining chips that could avoid a government shutdown

Updated Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 | 10:17 a.m.

Barring an unforeseen revolt, the Senate will pass a six-week federal budget extension today.

And that is when the ping-pong game really gets going.

House lawmakers have spent this week trying to figure out how they will respond, once the Senate kicks the continuing budget resolution back to their side of the Capitol.

Last Friday, the House set things in motion by passing a bill that extended the budget for three months, while defunding the health care law that is expected to kick in Oct. 1 — the first day of the new fiscal year.

But the Senate will change a few things about that legislation before it goes back — most notably deleting the part that defunds Obamacare.

So come Friday evening, it will be up to the House to decide: Will they take the Senate’s bill, and turn their Obamacare efforts on the next fiscal crisis? Or will they send something back that forces the Senate to scramble?

Thus far, leaders in the House are playing it cagey.

“We’ll see what the Senate sends back to us,” Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the appropriations committee, repeated like a mantra Thursday afternoon.

Here are a few of the things they could do.

1. Insist on an Obamacare delay.

House Republicans want to get rid of Obamacare lock, stock and barrel, but after about 40 repeal votes that went nowhere, they’ve realized it’s time to tweak their rallying cry. That’s where this “defund Obamacare” came from — if they couldn’t kill it, they could at least try to bleed it dry, one fiscal year at a time.

Now instead of “repeal” or “defund,” the verb of choice is “delay” — and for this, Republicans point to the fact that even President Barack Obama has delayed major portions of the health care bill in recent weeks. The mandate forcing large employers to provide minimum-standard health care, for instance, won’t kick in for another year. The administration announced Thursday that small businesses would have to wait a month to enroll in the exchanges that were to be open for enrollment starting Tuesday. And Spanish speakers are also going to have to wait indefinitely for the Spanish-language health care sign-up pages to be translated from English.

Democrats still charge that a Republican-divined delay of Obamacare would be dead on arrival. The question is how many House Republicans will put their foot down to demand it — and how many may demur, in order to keep the government funded.

2. Insist that lawmakers go on the exchanges.

In the Senate, this is the piece of legislation known as the “Vitter amendment,” which would eliminate the employer contribution paid to members of Congress and their staff to help them purchase insurance on the health care exchanges under the new law. Supporters say that if Congress is going to impose Obamacare on the country, they had better impose it upon themselves and buy their insurance from the exchanges without added support from the government.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has charged that this is a veiled attempt to strike a blow to Obamacare, especially as it affects congressional staffers. But it might not be such a non-starter across Washington, D.C.

A White House official points out that Obama has already said he would get his health insurance on the health care exchanges, and that the White House would support legislation asking Cabinet officials do the same.

3. Repeal the medical device tax.

A 2.3 percent tax on medical devices is an integral part of the funding structure of Obamacare. But the medical device industry really hates it, and so do a large number of members of Congress — even the Senate has voted to repeal the measure.

Only problem is, they need the money to pay for the health law. And that’s why Obama and Reid don’t want to see this happen on a continuing resolution.

This story was edited to correct information about what the Vitter amendment proposes to do.

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