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September 21, 2013

GOP House: Keep government open, hit ‘Obamacare’

WASHINGTON — Charting a collision course with the White House, the Republican-controlled House approved legislation Friday to wipe out the 3-year-old health care law that President Barack Obama has vowed to preserve — and simultaneously prevent a partial government shutdown that neither party claims to want.

“The American people don’t want the government shut down, and they don’t want “Obamacare,” Speaker John Boehner said as members of his rank and file cheered at a celebratory rally in the Capitol moments after the 230-189 vote. He stood at a lectern bearing a slogan that read, “(hash)Senate must act.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it will — but not the way Boehner and his tea party-heavy Republican contingent want. Assured of enough Senate votes to keep the government open and the health care law in existence, the Nevada Democrat accused Republicans of attempting “to take an entire law hostage simply to appease the tea party anarchists.”

Behind the rhetoric lay the likelihood of another in a series of complex, inside-the-Beltway brinkmanship episodes as conservative House Republicans and Obama struggle to imprint widely differing views on the U.S. government.

In addition to the threat of a partial shutdown a week from Monday, administration officials say that without passage of legislation to allow more federal borrowing, the nation faces the risk of a first-ever default sometime in the second half of next month.

House Republicans intend to vote to raise the nation’s debt limit next week to prevent that from happening. But they have said they will include a one-year delay in Obamacare in the measure to reinforce their determination to eradicate the program.

The same bill will include provisions to reduce deficits and stay the administration’s environmental agenda as the GOP seeks gains for its own priorities. Raising the cost of Medicare for financially better-off beneficiaries is one likely provision to be added, according to numerous officials. So, too, is a ban on federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama, who has said repeatedly he will not negotiate over debt limit legislation, called Boehner late in the day to tell him that directly. The speaker expressed disappointment, his office said, and responded that Congress “will chart the path ahead.”

Obama responded in remarks before an audience at a Ford assembly plant near Kansas City, Mo.

He blamed a “faction on the far right of the Republican Party” for threatening to shut down government operations or default on government debts. “They’re focused on trying to mess with me,” he told plant workers. “They’re not focused on you.”

Unlike other budget showdowns of the recent past, this one pits younger Republicans in the House against GOP veterans in the Senate, although not to the extent it does one party against the other.

Republicans are united in their opposition to the health care law, which they say will force the price of coverage higher and prompt employers to reduce work hours for workers.  But they disagree on how to attack it.

The bill that won passage on Friday was all but forced on Boehner and fellow House GOP leaders, who fear a repeat of the twin government shutdowns nearly two decades ago that inflicted serious political damage on Republicans.

Caution on the part of GOP elders was overwhelmed by tea party-aligned lawmakers, who were in turn responding to the urgings of outside groups and their allies in the Senate, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah among them.

The vote in the House was almost completely along party lines, and the administration threatened in advance to veto the bill if it should pass the Senate as well. Among Democrats, only Reps. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Jim Matheson of Utah supported the measure. Virginia Rep. Scott Rigell was the only Republican voting against it.

The Republican rally in the Capitol afterward was unusual for its overtly political tone.

“You know, many Senate Republicans have promised to leave no stone unturned fighting for this bill, and all of us here support that effort. We’re calling on Senate Democrats to do the same thing,” said Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who then asked how four Democrats who face re-election in swing states next year will be voting. Among the four, Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana all voted for the law when it passed Congress, and none has indicated a vote for nullification.

Instead, the likelihood is that the Senate will strip off the provision to defund the health care law, as well a different section that prioritizes debt payments in the event the Treasury lacks the funds to meet all its obligations. Reid and other Democrats then plan to send back to the House a bill whose sole purpose would be to prevent any interruption in government services on Oct. 1.

The next move would be up to Boehner and his famously fractious rank and file. Unless they decide to surrender quickly, they could respond with yet another attack on the health care law, perhaps a one-year delay in the requirement for individuals to purchase insurance. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky backs legislation to that effect, and Obama has already announced a one-year postponement in a requirement for businesses to provide coverage to their employees.

In recent years, the threat of massive interruptions in government services has waned as agencies refine their plans for possible shutdowns, but lawmakers cautioned the effects could be harmful.

“Our brave men and women of our military don’t get paid; our recovering economy will take a huge hit, and our most vulnerable citizens — including the elderly and veterans who rely on critical government programs and services — could be left high and dry,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky.

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