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October 21, 2014

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With House’s move setting up a government shutdown, ‘we’re running out of time’

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Associated Press

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia walks out of a Republican caucus at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013.

The House of Representatives is primed to push Congress one big step closer to a potential government shutdown tonight, when it votes to attach provisions to last-minute budgeting legislation that will delay and repeal Obamacare in part.

House leaders announced this morning that they intended to have members vote on an amendment to end a tax on medical devices that helps to pay for Obamacare and another to delay the health care law’s implementation date by one year. Both amendments also would extend the term of the continuing budget resolution from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15.

In a normal situation, that proffer might have created some room for compromise between Democrats and Republicans.

But with less than three days to go until Oct. 1, when the government runs out of discretionary funding and the health care exchanges are supposed to kick in, the atmosphere around the Capitol is anything but normal.

“We’re running out of time,” Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said outside the House chamber Saturday afternoon. “In the last months, the Republicans have spent their time voting 43 times to defund or obstruct the implementation of the bill rather than proposing these types of more meaningful proposals that might have room for negotiations. So we’re running out of time.”

That Republicans and Democrats are at odds over Obamacare is nothing new: The parties have been fighting about the law since President Barack Obama took office, and even the Republicans who declared a cease-fire after his re-election have recently taken to calling for defunding or delaying the law instead of an outright repeal.

The discord is nearing a breaking point as lawmakers hinge the entire federal budget on resolving their differences about Obamacare — all by a hard deadline of Monday night.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been explicit that he will not accept any changes to Obamacare as a bargaining point for getting the federal government funded.

“Today’s vote by House Republicans is pointless,” he said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “To be absolutely clear, the Senate will reject both the one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act and the repeal of the medical device tax. ... Republicans must decide whether to pass the Senate’s clean CR or force a Republican government shutdown.”

But House Republicans, who have been listening to such warnings from Reid all week, clearly resent being told what to do.

“What is the difference between the Senate saying ‘we won’t take anything but clean’ and us saying ‘we’re serious about the Obamacare’?” said Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev. “‘We’re not going to talk to you, we don’t care about what a majority of your house thinks, we want you to focus on what a majority of our house thinks?’ It’s like it’s a third-grade playground argument.”

“At some point, Harry Reid’s going to have to negotiate with us,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C. “If they don’t take up (our legislation) and they shut the government down, then we’ll just have to deal with those consequences.”

Republicans also believe that they have allies in the Democrats’ ranks whom Reid is simply trying to muzzle.

“I think honestly, there’s a lot of Democrats who would like to see (Obamacare) delayed a year,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

For weeks, Republicans have pointed to mounting problems with the health care law, such as major employers cutting full-time workers’ hours down to part-time so they can avoid footing their health care bills and a recent trend among union leaders who once lobbied for Obamacare criticizing it instead.

Most also cite the example of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who said earlier this week that he would support a one-year delay of the health care law.

Manchin is likely a limited case among Democratic supporters of the law. But many more Democrats are already on record as supporting — or at least being open to — a repeal of the 2.3 percent tax on medical devices that goes to pay for part of implementing Obamacare.

“The only thing that I think might be negotiable is the removal of the medical device tax ... if that were part of a compromise, I would be open to that,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., outside the House chamber Saturday morning. “But if the Senate’s already gone and they get back to whatever we pass on Monday, when midnight is the deadline, it’s looking less and less likely that some compromise can be reached.”

Timing is of the essence here, as Reid has reminded anyone within earshot the past few days.

The Senate’s procedural quirks could complicate efforts to get another vote done there, even if Democrats could find a middle ground with Republicans.

“We are not the House of Representatives,” Reid said on the floor earlier this week. “We have rules here.”

The House plans to vote on its two amendments this evening and send the budget resolution back to the Senate for its consideration afterwards. Reid has not yet announced plans to bring the Senate back into session any earlier than Monday morning.

It is a high-stakes moment. But there is a sense, among some Republicans, that Oct. 1 is a moment for a sort of last stand on Obamacare.

“The reason that it has become so important at this period in time is it’s getting ready to launch ... you’re on the doorstep of actually implementing this thing,” Amodei said. “Once it gets going, you’ll never get rid of it.”

Should the government shut down, the Republicans may lose their point: The rollout of Obamacare is expected to continue, whether or not there is a federal budget in the new fiscal year.

Republicans and Democrats will then have to resolve the same issues presently dividing them to get a budget to fund the rest of the government going again.

If a shutdown happens, “I think the public outrage will begin to put pressure on the other side,” Titus said. “If it happens, I think we can point a finger across the aisle.”

Republicans reject any of the blame Democrats are throwing in their direction.

“You may have it shut down for a few days,” Amodei said. “That’s nobody’s pick ... but it’s not about Democrats and Republicans, it’s about trying to get the policy right. And I don’t know of anyone who says the policy’s right right now.”

Democrats don’t much like that justification.

“What kind of an answer is that? Tell that to every federal employee in our district,” Horsford said, when told of Amodei’s comments. “People are really hurting and our economy is too fragile to say, 'Hey, maybe this government shutdown will help us get to an answer.' The answer is in here, and it’s in not continuing to appease the Tea Party.”

No matter how the budget fight turns out in Congress, everyone knows it is only the first chapter in a number of fiscal fights queued up for this fall. By mid-October, Congress has to strike a deal to raise the debt limit or risk the United States defaulting on its obligations to its creditors. Then in either mid-November or mid-December, the continuing budget resolution Congress is debating will expire.

At any of those points, Congress may find itself mired in a very similar fight.

“There’s no grand plan or solution,” Titus said. “It’s just kick the can down the road a little bit at a time.”

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