By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congress begins a wild and potentially chaotic week on Monday that may or may not end with a government shutdown on October 1 but will surely do nothing to improve its low standing with American voters.
With action to fund the government required in both the Senate and then once again in the House of Representatives, a down-to-the wire battle through next weekend is almost guaranteed.
And when members are finished with that, they will confront an even more volatile clash over increasing the government’s borrowing authority, with its credit rating and possible default on the line.
The long Republican war against “Obamacare,” President Barack Obama’s healthcare signature law set for launch on October 1, is at the heart of the clashes ahead. Republicans are using both the threat of a shutdown as well as the debt ceiling in an effort to scuttle or delay the law.
Yet the only certainty is that when the dust settles, Obamacare will still be standing. Neither the Democratic Senate nor Obama will agree to a bill delaying the program, signed into law by the president in March, 2010 to provide health coverage for millions of uninsured Americans.
The clash is a potentially defining moment for Republicans, who are badly divided over the anti-Obamacare tactic being pursued by the House.
DEFINING MOMENT FOR REPUBLICANS
Influential conservatives, including senior Republicans in the Senate, strategist Karl Rove and Fox News broadcaster Bill O’Reilly have called it futile, warning that a shutdown could seriously damage Republicans on the eve of the 2014 elections.
O’Reilly last week described the effort as “fanaticism on the right,” which is “harming the country. There’s no way Obamacare is going to be defunded…. So why bother alienating independent Americans by embracing a futile exercise,” he said on Fox.
Congressional authorization for the government to spend money runs out at the end of the fiscal year on September 30.
Whipped on by activists of the Tea Party movement, born in reaction to Obamacare when it was before Congress in 2009 and increasingly powerful in Republican election contests, Republicans in the House voted on Friday to make the measure conditional on defunding Obamacare.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made it clear that he will work this week to delete the House Republicans’ provision defunding Obamacare.
The first important vote on the House-passed Obamacare spending bill could come on Tuesday when Reid might stage a vote on a “motion to proceed,” which basically asks the Senate’s permission to debate a bill.
Sixty votes in the 100-member Senate likely will be required to approve this procedural move. Democrats control 54 votes -including those of two independents-versus 46 for Republicans.
An easy vote had been anticipated because it was thought that Republicans would surely vote to begin debate on a bill that aims to kill the healthcare law that they hate.
But U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas could make a filibuster stand at that point, slowing down the process, if nothing else.
TED CRUZ AT CENTER STAGE
Cruz, and to some extent his ally, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, have “gone rogue” on the Republican establishment in the Senate, with Cruz in particular the subject of bitter attack from some of his colleagues for traveling around the country urging a “no surrender” strategy on Obamacare.
If the “motion to proceed” passes, the Senate would then move to the bill itself with a Democratic amendment to strike the Obamacare provision.
Cruz could try again to slow or block the process by filibustering. Again, 60 votes would be needed move forward.
Winning that second procedural vote would open the door for Reid to then easily destroy the Obamacare provision, leaving the government funding part of the bill alive.
From there, Reid could push to pass the bill, again relying on just the 54 Democratic votes he controls, and then send the bill back to the House.
A somewhat less theatrical turn could see Democrats introduce and approve a straight-forward, six-week extension of spending at the current level and send that over to the House.
While there are a number of technical obstacles to that approach, it would free Senators from both parties from having to go on record one way or the other on Obamacare, making it harder for conservatives to use the vote against them in future elections.
It would have the same effect as stripping the House bill of the Obamacare provision.
After the Senate finishes, the measure to fund the government must then return to the U.S. House of Representatives.
By then, October 1 will be rapidly approaching and a high-stakes game of which-chamber-will-blink-first could unfold.
DEBT CEILING UP NEXT
House Republicans next week hope to unveil a second important bill – one to prevent the U.S. government from defaulting on its debt sometime in October or November.
The legislation would raise the country’s $16.7 trillion borrowing limit, but Republicans again want to extract something from Democrats in return for the debt limit hike.
They have been talking about attaching yet another plan to the debt limit bill that would gut Obamacare, as well as forcing a controversial approval of the Keystone oil pipeline running from Canada to the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.
House Republicans say they also are looking at some tax provisions to possibly lop onto the debt limit bill.
Obama has warned Republicans against loading up the debt limit bill with unrelated items, saying he will not negotiate on a measure that in effect pays the government’s outstanding bills.
Passage of a loaded-up debt limit bill in the House likely would trigger a rerun of the stop-gap spending fight that is consuming Washington now.
The combat over the shutdown and the debt ceiling is to some extent a rerun of past fiscal showdowns that have consumed much of the past three years, since Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 elections.
With every one of them, standing of Congress among Americans, never very high, has sunk even lower.
Ironically, the approval rating of Congress was on its way up, reaching a one-year high of 19 percent, according to the September 5-8 Gallup poll.