WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Friday approved stopgap spending legislation to keep the federal government open without gutting President Barack Obama's health care law, putting new pressure on House Speaker John Boehner to find a way out of an impasse that had the government on a steady course to a shutdown as of midnight Monday.
The 54-44 vote to send the measure back to the House came after the Senate, in a bipartisan rebuke to Republican hard-liners, cut off debate on House legislation that would fund the government only if money for the new health law were eliminated. That 79-19 vote included the top GOP leadership and easily exceeded the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster. It was followed by a 54-44 vote to take out the health law provision before passage.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the votes "the first step toward wresting control from the extremists."
"This is it. Time is gone," Mr. Reid warned, saying the Senate would accept "nothing" on a funding bill related to the health care law. "Here's a president who less than a year ago won election by 5 million votes. Obamacare has been the law for four years. Why don't they get a life and talk about something else?"
After the vote, Mr. Obama called on Republicans to stop what he called "political grandstanding" on the health care law and accept the Senate measure to avoid government disruptions. "Over the next three days, House Republicans will have to decide whether to join the Senate and keep the government open, or shut it down just because they can't get their way," he said Friday at the White House. "This grandstanding has real effects on real people."
The series of Senate votes brought Mr. Boehner, R-Ohio, to a defining moment of his speakership, just days from the Tuesday government shutdown and weeks before the more momentous deadline of Oct. 17, when the Treasury will no longer be able to borrow to meet the government's obligations unless Congress raises its statutory debt limit.
He can accept the Senate bill, which finances the government through Nov. 15 without Republican policy prescriptions, or listen to his conservatives, who will accept a government shutdown unless the health care law is suspended or weakened.
House Republicans will meet at noon today to hash out their options. Mr. Boehner has signaled that he would again attach language to chip away at the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. But as the deadline approaches, fissures are appearing in the Republican ranks.
"The only time you shut down the government is when you shut it down and refuse to open it until you accomplish what you want. We'll fold like hotcakes," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "You do not take a hostage you are not going to for sure shoot, and we will not for sure shoot this hostage."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, immediately began encouraging House conservatives to stand up to any move by GOP leaders to back off efforts to gut the health care law. He had been urging his Senate colleagues all week to oppose ending debate as a way to force Democrats to accept language defunding the Affordable Care Act. But with the clock ticking toward a shutdown, an overwhelming bipartisan majority wanted to act quickly to move the spending bill back to the House.
The Senate legislation would almost certainly win approval, largely with Democratic votes, if it were put to a vote in the House. But conservatives warned that it could hurt the beleaguered speaker dearly if he took that step. "I think it would be devastating to the speaker's support," said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., one of the members urging his party's leadership to drive a hard bargain with the Senate.
"I think the question is: Do we go with the carrot or the stick strategy?" Mr. Hudson added. "Do we try to do something bad enough to force Harry Reid to negotiate with us, or do we do something that we think he can't refuse?"
Republicans may also consider a simple bill to keep the government open for as little as seven days while the legislative jousting continues. That was opposed by senior Republicans, such as House Appropriations Committee chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. But Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, a close Boehner ally, said, "If you can't get the House and Senate together by midnight Sept. 30, it becomes a more viable strategy."
By Friday, most House Republicans had come around to the view of their leadership: that a government shutdown would be painful for their party from a political and public relations standpoint.
"Listen, I'm not going to let the government shut down," said Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y. "I don't want to be undercutting Boehner, but put it this way: I will not let the government shut down."
House Republicans thought they might be able to find a compromise with Senate Democrats -- including, they said, on some more modest changes to the president's health care law, such as repealing a tax on medical device manufacturers that helps pay for the law, or in exchange for approval of GOP priorities such as the Keystone XL pipeline.
"I'd love to see a medical device repeal, whether it's Keystone, even a delay in the [Obamacare] individual mandate," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. "Look, I think the administration realizes that Obamacare is not ready for prime time, and so I think ultimately maybe they'd be amenable to it."
But Republican leaders face a divided conference and a new wrinkle in Mr. Cruz, who has angered many House members while rallying a core group of hard-core conservatives to his side. On Friday, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a key Cruz ally, huddled with four House conservatives in plain view on the House floor -- Reps. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, Justin Amash of Michigan, Cynthia M. Lummis of Wyoming and Scott Garrett of New Jersey -- to plot the next steps.
After an unrelated morning vote in the House, another half-dozen conservative Republicans gathered in a stairwell just off the House chamber to discuss their next steps, agreeing that a funding bill that contained only modest policy changes, such as the medical device tax repeal, would be "unacceptable." Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said, "I think I'd be very satisfied tomorrow if we sit down and we send them [in the Senate] a one-year delay" of the health care law's implementation.
With Democrats united in their demands for no changes to the health care law, Mr. Boehner once again finds himself squeezed, this time with a hard deadline rapidly approaching.
"I'm concerned. I'm not at the point of pants on fire, but I'm concerned," said Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Allentown, a moderate and a Boehner ally. "It seems there's likely going to be another relaunch. If there is going to be another relaunch, in my view it should be something the Senate will accept."