Guide to the Capitol Hill stand-off over defunding ObamaCare

The showdown over defunding ObamaCare begins in the Senate on Monday. Here's what to expect: 

The chamber meets at 2 p.m. That's when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., receives the House-passed bill which pays for government programs and defunds the Affordable Care Act. 

Reid, though, can't simply call the bill up on his own. The founders designed the Senate as a body of equals. Thus, obtaining "unanimous consent" to do anything is required. Hypothetically, 99 senators could be willing to advance to the House bill. But all it takes is the objection of a sole member. 

Therefore, there's no "unanimous consent" to begin debate on the government funding/defund ObamCare legislation. 

The Senate, then, is stuck on what's called the "motion to proceed" to the bill. Reid can file a "cloture petition" to try to bridge this filibuster, allowing the Senate to vault such a procedural roadblock -- if it can cobble together 60 yeas. But if Reid files for cloture to end the filibuster on Monday, senators must wait until Wednesday when the cloture petition "ripens" for the vote. 

If the cloture petition secures 60 yeas, the majority has beaten back the demands of the minority just to debate the bill. But the Senate can't debate the bill just yet. Opponents of starting the debate are then given the option of debating the issue for an additional 30 hours. If Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and the others go to the mat, it's possible the Senate may not even launch the debate on the bill itself until Sept. 26 - and funding expires at 12:00:01 a.m. on Oct. 1. 

Any objection to proceeding to the bill is not a "talking" filibuster in the Jimmy Stewart/Strom Thurmond sense. But it is a filibuster -- and is the means by which most filibusters are executed these days. 

So far, Cruz and his colleagues have been circumspect about their precise strategy for filibustering defunding of ObamaCare in the Senate. But Cruz and company have an important decision to make about filibustering the "motion to proceed." Think for a moment about what they're filibustering. 

On Friday, the House sent the Senate a bill to fund the government and kill the health care funding. That's what conservatives demanded. So if they block Reid in any form from calling up that particular measure for debate, they are in fact filibustering precisely the bill they asked the House to produce. 

Still, there's a way out of this for Cruz. 

On Thursday, Reid affirmed that "any bill that defunds ObamaCare is dead. Dead." 

Cruz could potentially argue that Reid has already telegraphed his intentions to strip the defunding language out of the bill. Cruz's mission is to stop that from happening. But the optics of filibustering the Senate from initiating debate on the very bill which defunds the health care law could spell trouble for opponents. 

Now back to the timing. 

It's quite possible the Senate might not get to the government funding bill until Thursday night, Sept. 26. That's when Reid's powers as majority leader come into play. It's tradition that the Senate defers to the majority leader when he seeks recognition on the floor. He gets to speak first. In other words, the first chance Cruz and others may have to seize the Senate floor and commence a speaking filibuster is when the actual debate on the bill begins. However, it's doubtful Reid would let that happen as he gets first dibs. Secondly, Reid may also attempt to alter the bill by "filling the amendment tree." Presumably, Reid would fill the tree with amendments to restore the ACA funding and maybe even raise the overall cost of the bill.
And then Reid, still holding the floor, gets to do one more thing. He can immediately file another cloture petition to end debate on the bill itself. If this happens Thursday, the Senate could then vote on that cloture petition Saturday, Sept. 28. If Reid secures 60 yeas, the package is likely on a glide-path to passage which only needs 51 yeas. However, opponents can then burn 30 hours again, potentially delaying a final Senate vote until Sunday, Sept. 29.

So what happens next? 


Believe it or not, a trademark originally held by Parker Brothers is the parliamentary exercise the House and Senate engage in to settle this. And while some traditionalists don't like it, "Ping-Pong" is the term most on Capitol Hill use when describing these procedural steps. 

The House passed its bill on Friday, Sept. 21 and pinged it to the Senate. Then the Senate conceivably changes the legislation and pongs it back to the House. At that point, the ball is in the House's court. Perhaps on Sunday, Sept. 29, or even Monday, Sept. 30. That means time to avert a government shutdown is slipping off the clock. It's presumed the Senate will send back to the House a bill which maintains ACA funding. So, it's up to the House Republican leadership to make a decision. With the hour so late, will it accept such a measure (prospectively passing it with some Republicans and a host of Democrats)? Or will it strike the health care funding again and ping the legislation back to the Senate with just hours to spare? 

"I wouldn't stow away our ping-pong paddles in the attic just yet," said Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla. "When it comes to a government shutdown, it may depend on who is holding the ball at the end." 

Cruz says that the bill "may well go back and forth from the House and Senate several times." 

But with the moments ticking on the clock, one wonders how much time remains. Spend too much time on congressional table tennis, and it's suddenly Oct. 1 without a government funding bill. 

And that creates such big decisions for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as to how to address the Senate bill when it's ponged back to the House. Can his conference stomach a bill that funds ObamaCare? Or does Boehner turn to pass the stripped-down bill with just some Republicans and a host of Democrats? 

That gambit has worked before for Boehner, most significantly on the bill to provide aid after Hurricane Sandy. The House approved the package with just 49 Republican yeas and 192 Democratic yes's. 

And the question, then, is what do the rank-and-file make of Boehner if he goes down that road?