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House Republican leaders made their first real move Tuesday toward averting a politically catastrophic shutdown Oct. 1, but they once again face a tough road to unite their conference behind them.
The plan for a short-term punt marries the 2013 spending levels reduced by the sequester with a legislative maneuver that would force the Senate to vote again on defunding Obamacare. Both parties would get to duke it out through the fall, with the longer-term issues like the mid-October debt ceiling deadline still unresolved.
Aides in both parties and chambers expected that a clean, short-term continuing resolution would keep the government operational until December — past the looming debt ceiling deadline — and, at least in the House, would need to be approved with mostly, if not exclusively, Republican backing. Senate Democrats are waiting for House Republicans to prove they actually can pass a bill through their chamber before committing to a plan.
All four congressional leaders — Speaker John A. Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — are scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss the fiscal challenges ahead.
The closed-door meeting, to be held at 10 a.m. in Boehner’s leadership suite, will be the first time the leaders have sat down together to discuss fiscal issues since last spring when they discussed sequester cuts with President Barack Obama. The leaders are expected to discuss both the continuing resolution and the debt ceiling.
A House Republican leadership aide, meanwhile, said he thought the meeting would focus primarily on the debt limit, with Boehner making it clear of the “political reality” that the sequester won’t be replaced until Democrats agree to a whole host of cuts and overhauls.
A House democratic leadership aide said it was difficult to imagine a productive outcome from the meeting, given that it is scheduled to coincide with the House’s consideration of a short-term spending measure holding government funding at sequester levels.
“It sends a message of insincerity,” the aide said.
House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said on Tuesday that he hopes the two-and-a-half-month CR at a $986.3 billion spending level buys Congress the necessary time to work together on agreeing to a more sustainable topline number.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are hoping that the short-term extension can give them time to roll back the sequester, given the significant number of Republicans who do not support the defense cuts.
“I’m waiting to hear from the House on what they are going to do,” said Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md. “My preference would be a short-term CR and get to an omnibus after Thanksgiving. So, I would prefer that we have a very short-term CR now to work things out.”
Mikulski added, “You know, Syria has slowed all conversation down about this.”
Democrats, too, are fiscal-battle weary, still burned from an administration they believe negotiated the fiscal-cliff deal last year so poorly that they ceded all leverage and stuck themselves with cuts no one liked.
But perhaps the most exhausting element of all four leaders is the demand for yet another round of votes to defund Obamacare. The House has voted 40 times to repeal the law, to no avail and to no real expectation of success.
Yet, 80 House Republicans have pledged to oppose a CR that doesn’t defund the 2010 health law.
To assuage those Republican rank-and-file members, House GOP leadership has come up with a legislative maneuver to allow Republicans to vote on defunding the law and then force the Senate to do the same as a condition of voting on the CR. In the end, the defunding provision is expected to fail in the Senate but the underlying spending bill would survive.
Nearly a dozen Republicans have, since hearing the plan from their leaders on Tuesday morning, stated they would not support the measure under those circumstances. Conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, already called such a plan “procedural chicanery.” And influential conservative advocacy groups are promising to key vote even the rule on the CR, making the chances for passage of the measure slated for consideration on the floor on Thursday increasingly slim.
“Last night, news reports surfaced that the House of Representatives might vote to ‘defund Obamacare’ in a way that easily allows Senate Democrats to keep funding Obamacare. If House Republicans go along with this strategy, they will be complicit in the disaster that is Obamacare,” Cruz said in a statement Tuesday. “If you oppose Obamacare, don’t fund Obamacare. Our elected leaders should listen to the American people.”
That rallying call was heard in the other chamber as well.
“The House plan is a gimmick that leaves defunding Obamacare in the hands of the Democrat-controlled Senate, and I will not support it,” Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said in a statement. “The Senate has proven they cannot be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to the job-killing Unaffordable Care Act.”
“You only need 17 to bring down a rule unless they’ve already ran out and got the Democrat support for this,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who says he’ll vote against the CR at this point. Should they get the votes to move forward, he added, Republicans “risk losing the majority” of the House in 2014.
Rep. John Fleming, R-La., suggested that tying a one-year delay of Obamacare to increasing the debt limit later this year could be the key to rallying Republican votes back to the CR, despite the legislative maneuver leaders endorse.
“If I knew what the exact plan was and had absolute assurance if we didn’t do it on this CR we’d do it in the next at first of the year, or the debt ceiling, or part of a larger strategy, I would reconsider,” Fleming said, who will vote “no” on the short-term spending deal this week “unless I have that kind of commitment from leadership.”
According to a House GOP leadership aide, there are no such promises.