WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled Senate voted Friday to fund the federal government without gutting President Obama’s health law, but the possibility of a government shutdown early next week loomed large as House Republicans remained divided and defiant.
“We’re getting closer every second and this could well happen,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York as he and fellow Democratic leaders stood before a countdown clock Friday afternoon that ticked toward the Monday night deadline.
The Senate bill, which would fund the government through mid-November, passed along party lines, 54-44. But a procedural hurdle that could have thwarted the Democratic plan was cleared by a much wider margin when a number of Republicans joined the majority, 79-19. That vote showed the depth of disagreement in the GOP over how aggressively to fight against the health law, a crusade with strong symbolic value for conservatives but little chance of success.
House Republicans voted a week ago to fund the government only on the condition that no money be used to implement the health care law, which many conservatives have pledged to eliminate before key provisions take effect on Tuesday. Democrats who control the White House and Senate have said for weeks that defunding the law was a nonstarter.
A government shutdown would put hundreds of thousands of federal workers on immediate furlough, close national parks, halt some federal contracts, hold up loans, and threaten damage to the economy. Lawmakers are simultaneously working against another fiscal deadline, in mid-October, when they must vote to raise the federal borrowing limit or risk a default on the nation’s debt, an even graver threat to the economy.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid urged the House to fund the government without any conditions and accept that the health law is here to stay. He adjourned the Senate until 2 p.m. Monday, a sign that he was not willing to engage in a series of competing votes with House Republicans.
“This is it,” said the Nevada Democrat. “Time is gone.”
“We are going to accept nothing that relates to Obamacare,” he added. “There’s a time and place for everything and this is not the time or the place.”
Senate Democrats put a November expiration date on their budget bill because they said they hope to win a better fiscal deal, one that would eliminate automatic cuts known as the sequester, with further budget maneuvering in the short term.
House GOP lawmakers said Friday that they plan to meet Saturday behind closed doors to hash out a new strategy for the two fiscal fights. But there was little consensus among Republicans over how far to push the standoff. House Republicans have floated a range of options, from funding the government for just a week to enable further negotiations, to passing a funding bill that would force Democrats to consider smaller changes to the health law, to delaying the law for a year, to continuing the standoff in hopes that the Senate would blink.
No lawmaker even seemed confident of what the next move would be in the House.
“We honestly don’t know,” said Representative Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican. “We haven’t coalesced around a consensus yet.”
Hudson, one of many conservative members elected in 2012, said he and other Republicans would not agree to fund the government without getting something in return. The only question was whether it would be a carrot or stick sent back to the Senate, he said.
“Do we do something bad enough to sort of force Harry Reid to negotiate with us, or do we do something that he can’t refuse to say yes to?” he said.
The confusion on the Republican side is likely to make finding a solution even more elusive than in prior budget battles. Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, has already abandoned several strategies amid revolts from a bloc of 30 to 40 conservatives who are adamantly opposed to any compromise with Democrats.
The government has not shut down since 1996. But Obama has had a number of standoffs with Republicans over whether to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling. In each case, a crisis has been averted with last-minute deals or surrenders. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has warned Congress it must raise the debt limit by Oct. 17 to avoid a default.
Obama went before cameras Friday afternoon to put further pressure on Republicans, labeling them extremists and imploring them to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling.
“Do not threaten to burn the house down simply because you haven’t gotten 100 percent of your way,” Obama said. “That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work.”
Boehner’s aides complained that Obama had not called the speaker all week.
“The House will take action that reflects the fundamental fact that Americans don’t want a government shutdown and they don’t want the train wreck that is Obamacare,” Boehner’s spokesman, Brendan Buck, said in a statement. “Grandstanding from the president, who refuses to even be a part of the process, won’t bring Congress any closer to a resolution.”
Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican close to Boehner, said most Republicans would agree to any plan the speaker proposes, but holdouts within the party have made it difficult for House Republicans to act.
“You’ve got to go find the last 25, 30 votes, and that’s a painstaking and time-consuming process,” he said.
Reid said he had not been negotiating with Boehner and continued to blame the “weird caucus” within the Republican Party for bringing the nation to the brink.
“They don’t represent Republicans around the country,” Reid said. “These Tea Party Republicans, they don’t represent Republicans in the Senate. But they have the ability basically to stop us from doing anything.”
Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who has led the fight for the Tea Party agenda, urged fellow conservatives in the House to hang tough in the showdown. Though Cruz leads a small minority in the Senate, he can use Senate rules to stall any potential compromise, which would force lawmakers to miss the Monday night deadline to fund the government if the Senate is forced to take another vote. Cruz declined on Friday to say what, if any, compromise he would accept.
“What’s critical is that the House pass a measure that protects the American people from the harms that Obamacare inflicts,” he said.
Other Republican senators who have urged their party to avoid the confrontation over funding the government sounded uncertain as to whether there would be a way out of the current box.
“I don’t know,” said Bob Corker of Tennessee. “We don’t have any idea.”
John McCain, the Arizonan who has been the key to diffusing prior standoffs, sounded exasperated. “The American people are very unhappy,” he said.