Updated Sept. 10, 9:41 a.m. | Top Republicans and Democrats are hoping to find a way out of a shutdown showdown this month, with the likeliest scenario a short-term bill that funds the government at this year’s levels and leaves Obamacare unscathed.
Though the question of whether to strike Syria is dominating news organizations' and lawmakers' attention, Congress also has to race against the clock to agree to a spending bill that keeps the government open past Sept. 30 and increase the debt ceiling in the weeks that follow. The four top leaders — Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — are scheduled to meet Thursday to try to chart a path forward, a source confirmed to CQ Roll Call.
What House Republicans can pass as soon as this week will depend on whether their members will demand stricter Obamacare defunding language or additional spending cuts beyond the $988 billion GOP leaders are planning.
Republican leaders have hinted at their preference for a no-drama bill that would keep the government open while talks continue on a broader budget deal that may or may not include a debt limit increase. A GOP leadership aide outlined Monday a way for House Republicans to use a legislative maneuver that would allow Republicans to vote to defund Obamacare but let the Senate strip out the Obamacare language.
One Senate Democratic aide told CQ Roll Call that a clean, short-term continuing resolution at this year's $988 billion level would likely get through the Senate, but the White House has yet to weigh in.
Funding the government at this year's levels is $21 billion higher than the $967 billion fully phased-in budget sequester would be next year under the 2011 debt limit deal. But it’s also $70 billion less than the $1.058 trillion Democrats and the White House have sought.
Despite not pressing for the $967 billion level, Republican leaders would surely declare victory, given they are already promoting the benefits of keeping spending flat.
“In signing a CR at sequester levels, the President would be endorsing a level of spending that wipes away all the increases he and Congressional Democrats made while they were in charge and returns us to a pre-2008 level of discretionary spending," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a memo last week to House Republicans.
House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said Monday that he believes the current stopgap spending bill would keep the government funded through Dec. 15 and that it would be set at the $988 billion level.
As for whether language defunding Obamacare will be included, Rogers said, "We will have to wait and see."
Indeed, the immediate challenge for GOP leaders is finding a way to appease the Obamacare defunding caucus.
The leadership aide said Republicans were planning a single vote on a CR and a resolution defunding Obamacare, similar to how the GOP handled the same issue in 2011.
"You vote once for both," the aide said. "The clerk of the House sends defunding to the Senate. Under the rule, the continuing resolution cannot be transmitted to the Senate until they vote on defund."
Once the Senate jettisons the defunding resolution, they would get the clean continuing resolution. Republicans would be able to say that they voted to defund Obamacare, blame the Senate and keep the government open.
The Club for Growth ripped the idea. “Are these news reports from The Onion? Or are they real?” President Chris Chocola asked. “Trying to fool Republicans into voting to fund Obamacare is even worse than offering a bill that deliberately funds it."
A spokeswoman for Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who spearheaded a letter signed by 79 House GOP colleagues calling for a repeal of the health care law in any appropriations bill, said they haven’t budged in their position that the health care law's funding must be cut off.
"Rep. Meadows and his 79 colleagues who sent the letter to House leadership remain committed to defunding Obamacare through any appropriations legislation, including the continuing resolution," spokeswoman Emily Miller said. "Once the CR text is available, Rep. Meadows looks forward to reviewing the legislation as it goes under consideration by the House this week."
Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action for America, said there was no reason to put defunding the health care law on the back burner.
"Certainly conventional wisdom is Syria will take up all the oxygen in the room and there won’t be willingness from either a calendar perspective or a political capital perspective to take on multiple issues at once," said Holler, whose organization supports Meadows and his letter's co-signers. "Obviously that's something we thoroughly reject. They have plenty of time to move on stuff. And certainly even though it hasn't been shown frequently, there is an ability to do more than one thing at once."
To prod members, tea-party-inspired activists will hold an anti-Obamacare rally Tuesday on the West Lawn of the Capitol.
Many House Democrats would surely vote against any bill that keeps the sequester more or less intact, but some might prefer that to even deeper cuts, Obamacare defunding or a shutdown.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus who famously called the law creating the sequester a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich,” said he could envision a scenario where he and other colleagues could vote for a short-term continuing resolution at the $988 billion level to avoid a shutdown.
But House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., wasn’t willing to concede a sequester-level continuing resolution yet. Democrats want at least a vote on their own plan, he said.
"They should give us a choice," said Van Hollen, adding that Democrats would be pushing for Republicans to allow a vote on the Democrats' proposed sequester replacement.
"We understand Republicans may discourage that, but they have denied us a vote seven times" on the Democratic sequester replacement bill, Van Hollen added. "We're going to make the case that the country deserves a vote on that."
It’s also not clear whether Syria will cloud the dynamic.
Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Republicans, said there was no correlation. And her Democratic counterpart agreed.
"It's hard to see how Syria changes Republicans' internal challenges,” said Matthew Dennis, a spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Democrats.