WASHINGTON -- The Senate is expected to reject decisively a House bill passed over the weekend that would delay the full effect of President Barack Obama's health care law as a condition for keeping the government running past today. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, expressed confidence that he had public opinion on his side.
Angering Republicans who lead the House, Mr. Reid kept the Senate shuttered Sunday in a calculated move to delay action on the House measure until this afternoon, just hours before the government's spending authority runs out at midnight.
Without a complete capitulation by House Republicans, large sections of the government would close, hundreds of thousands of workers would be furloughed without pay, and millions more would be asked to work for no pay.
Polls show that the public is already deeply unhappy with its leaders in Congress, and the prospect of the first government shutdown in 17 years would be the latest dispiriting development. With a temporary shutdown appearing inevitable without a last-ditch compromise, the battle Sunday became as much about blaming the other side as searching for a solution.
House Republicans, who insisted that they had passed a compromise that would avoid a shutdown if only the Senate would act, blamed Mr. Reid for purposely running out the clock.
"Unlock those doors, I say to Harry Reid," said Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., who stood on the steps of the empty Senate on Sunday with about a dozen of her House colleagues. "Come out and do your job."
But Mr. Reid, D-Nev., sees little incentive or political advantage in bowing to those demands. He has managed to hold his 54-member caucus together so far. And because of support from some Senate Republicans who have called it a mistake for House Republicans to try to force changes to the health care law in an unrelated fight over the budget, Mr. Reid's hand has been strengthened.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine became the latest Republican to criticize her House colleagues, saying Sunday that an effort to link the health care amendments to the budget was "a strategy that cannot possibly work."
Mr. Reid's plan, which exploits the bypasses and delays available to him in congressional procedure, leaves little time for the House to act before the Tuesday deadline.
The Senate today is expected to send back to the House a plain budget bill, stripped of its provisions to delay the full effect of the health care law, repeal a tax on medical devices and allow businesses to opt out of contraception coverage for their employees.
All Mr. Reid needs are 51 Democrats to vote with him -- not the usual 60-vote threshold required for most Senate business -- and the spending bill will go back to the House in a matter of minutes. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in charge of vote counting, said he had been canvassing Senate Democrats from Republican states and that the party remained unified.
Senate Democrats plan to emphasize a message that the blame for any shutdown rests squarely with Republicans. "They can decide at that point whether they'll shut down the government or not," Mr. Durbin said.
Republicans would then face a difficult choice. House Speaker John Boehner could risk the ire of his more conservative members and put the Senate bill on the floor for a straight up or down vote, a route that his more moderate members have begun urging him to take.
Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Allentown., said Sunday that he was actively courting Republicans and Democrats to get behind a temporary spending bill to avert a shutdown, even if it contained none of the additional measures the House passed over the weekend.
"I'm prepared to vote for a clean resolution tomorrow," Mr. Dent said. "It's time to govern. I don't intend to support a fool's errand at this point."
Republican lawmakers said Sunday that the House leadership had one more card to play, but that it was extremely delicate. They can tell Mr. Reid he must accept some face-saving measure, like the repeal of the tax on medical devices, which many Democrats support, or they will send back a new amendment that would force members of Congress and their staffs, and the staff of the White House, to purchase their medical insurance on the new health law's insurance exchanges, without any subsidies from the government to offset the cost.
Republicans expressed certainty that for all the discomfort a shutdown would inflict on Capitol Hill, Democrats would not risk it to protect their own benefits.
The Republican House leadership indicated Sunday that it was planning to amend whatever the Senate sends back today -- and quickly.
Getting to that point would require agreement in an extremely short amount of time from a group of conservative Republicans who have often acted in discord with the rest of their conference. And it would require them to drop objections to defunding the health care law or delay the law's full implementation for a year. People can begin signing up for insurance coverage under the law starting Tuesday.
Complicating matters further, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who thrilled the conservative base last week with a 21-hour verbal assault on the health care law, has been urging House members to hold firm.
There are many Republicans who are convinced that the public would not automatically blame them for a shutdown, and they sought over the weekend to make the case that Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid were slowing down the process to score political points. They seized on a pair of images that they hoped would resonate with the public: Mr. Obama playing golf Saturday and Mr. Reid keeping the Senate dark until today.
Mr. Boehner called Mr. Reid's move "an act of breathtaking arrogance."
The Capitol was quiet Sunday. There was no legislative business going on in either chamber. The action was outside -- on the morning talk shows, where leaders of both parties pointed fingers, and on the Senate steps, where Republicans gathered in a last-minute demonstration of their anger at Mr. Reid. Neither Mr. Boehner nor Mr. Reid made any public appearances.
First Published September 30, 2013 4:00 AM