The U.S. Senate is poised tomorrow to begin debating legislation that would restore funding for President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law as part of a spending bill to fund the government past Sept. 30.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tonight proposed an amendment to restore the health-care law funding and to pay for government operations through Nov. 15, a month shorter than the funding expiration date in a measure passed by House last week.
Reid acted after the Senate today unanimously voted to advance the stopgap spending bill, accelerating a showdown with House Republicans over the health law with a government shutdown just six days away. The Nevada Democrat also moved to limit debate on the measure, setting up a Sept. 27 vote on his amendment and a final vote as late as the next day.
“Every hour we delay here is an hour closer to shutting down the government,” Reid said following the vote.
The Senate vote after a 21-hour speech by Texas Republican Ted Cruz protesting the 2010 health law. The chamber is on track to pass a measure by the weekend to keep federal agencies open when the next fiscal year starts Oct. 1 while funding the president’s health initiative.
Democrats insist that they won’t accept changes to the health law as a condition for government funding, putting pressure on House Speaker John Boehner to accept the Senate bill or offer more health-care changes his caucus is demanding.
Republicans sought to project unity after Cruz’s speech, which emphasized an intra-party divide over the merits of trying to use the spending fight to dismantle Obamacare.
“Later this week, every Republican will unite to vote against any amendment to add funding for Obamacare,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who yesterday expressed concern that Cruz’s tactics could leave the House with little time to plan its next move.
The next step in the Senate will be a vote to end debate Sept. 27. If the vote succeeds, Democrats who control the chamber will move to strip from the Sept. 20 House measure language that ends funding for the health-care law. The legislative process probably will continue through the weekend.
Reid’s move tonight on limiting debate came after Republicans -- notably Cruz --yielded back debate time on taking up the bill. That sets up the final vote on Sept. 28 at the latest.
The rare unanimous Senate vote shows that lawmakers of both parties have an incentive to advance the legislation. Republicans don’t want to oppose a bill that chokes off Obamacare funding, while Democrats want to move the bill forward so they they can restore the money for health care.
“I’m for defunding Obamacare,” said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, referring to the next test vote on the measure. “How do you vote ‘no’ on a bill that defunds Obamacare?”
Democrats said the shorter stopgap period under Reid’s proposal would give lawmakers time to resolve appropriations for fiscal 2014 that contain automatic reductions known as sequestration.
House Republicans are weighing their options for the spending measure when it comes back from the Senate without health-care defunding. Among them are eliminating the medical-device tax and scrapping subsidies that members of Congress would receive to buy insurance on the exchanges under Obamacare.
“I imagine it will be repackaged with something else,” said Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican. “They’ve got a full basket of things they can put in it.”
Burr said he thought a one-year delay in the law could pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Arizona Senator John McCain said if the House alters the Senate measure, he’d want to see a vote on repealing the medical-device tax and delaying the health-care law for a year.
“All I know is how it ends,” McCain said today. “You don’t defund Obamacare. I’ve seen the movie before.”
Senate Democrats rejected the Republican’s idea to attach repeal of the medical-device tax to a bill to keep the government open.
“That is not the strategy we’re pushing for this time,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, an advocate for repealing a tax that affects companies such as Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc. “Right now, we just want to get the government to continue operating.”
Klobuchar said advocates of a device-tax repeal are still searching for a way to offset the $30 billion revenue loss over the next decade that could be accepted by both parties.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, said lawmakers shouldn’t make major policy on a bill that just keeps government open for six weeks.
“It makes absolutely no sense,” she said.
On another fiscal front, the House tomorrow could introduce legislation to increase the U.S. debt limit.
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew told Congress today that the extraordinary measures being used to avoid breaching the debt ceiling “will be exhausted no later than Oct. 17.” The Congressional Budget Office today estimated the government will be unable to pay its bills starting Oct. 22.
House Republicans will include a one-year delay of the health-care law as part of its legislation on the borrowing authority.
Cruz’s 21-hour, 19-minute speech -- the fourth-longest for the Senate -- compared the fight to end the measure to the nation’s battle for independence against Great Britain and the fight to keep the U.S. unified after the Civil War. He stopped talking at noon as the Senate began a new legislative day.
“I hope over the course of this filibuster the issues that are at the heart of this debate were put front and center in front of the American people,” Cruz said after leaving the Senate floor. “Obamacare isn’t working. When you get outside of Washington, Republicans agree on that, Democrats agree on that, independents agree on that, libertarians agree on that.”
Cruz, Utah Senator Mike Lee, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, chief critics of the health law in the Senate, voted today with the majority.
“It’s time to vote,” Paul said, explaining his decision. “The sooner we’re done with this, the better chance we have of not having the government shut down.”
Reid called Cruz’s move “a big waste of time.”
“It’s a shame we’re standing here having wasted perhaps two days, most of yesterday and a good part of today, when we could pass what we need to pass very quickly and send it back to the House,” Reid said after Cruz yielded the floor.
In addition to railing against the health-care law, Cruz killed time reading from Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” and referencing the reality TV show “Duck Dynasty.”
When Cruz wrapped up, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat, chided the Texan for missing the moral of the Dr. Seuss story.
“Try something before you condemn it -- you might actually like it,” Schumer said. In reference to Sam-I-Am, the book’s main character, he added: “Maybe if he was a senator he’d speak on the floor for 21 hours, and then when he tasted green eggs, he’d actually like them.”