House Republican leaders heading into a rare weekend session struggled with a tough choice after Senate Democrats succeeded in passing a "clean" budget bill which, contrary to GOP wishes, restores funding for ObamaCare.
The Senate, capping a dramatic week on Capitol Hill, approved the bill on Friday, after Democrats stripped a Republican-backed provision to defund the health law. The final vote was 54-44.
The House is expected to take up the legislation starting on Saturday, and the bill is seen by some lawmakers as a sort of legislative hot potato. If the two chambers cannot agree on a final bill by midnight on Monday, then the government will shut down. Neither side wants to be left holding the bill if that happens.
House Speaker John Boehner could, theoretically, just call up the Senate-passed bill and rely on mostly Democrats to pass it. But House Republicans are under heavy pressure, now, from fellow conservatives to stand by their demand that ObamaCare be defunded, or least delayed.
A group of 62 conservative Republican lawmakers emerged late Friday with a proposed amendment to the spending bill that would delay the entire health care law for a year. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said he plans to introduce the amendment when the House considers the funding bill.
"This approach was developed over several meetings with House Republicans, with a goal of keeping our conference unified, as we continue working to keep the government open and protect our constituents from the harmful effects of ObamaCare,” Graves said in a statement.
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Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who staged an unsuccessful effort to stall the bill in the Senate, predicted the House would restore anti-ObamaCare provisions -- and urged Senate Republicans to unite with them. "Today, far too many Republicans joined Harry Reid in giving the Democrats the ability to fund ObamaCare," he said.
Boehner signaled he will not accept the Senate-passed bill in its current form. If the bill is altered in any way, it will have to return to the Senate for yet another vote.
"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," spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement.
But President Obama, during remarks at the White House, warned Republicans not to go down that road.
"(Undoing ObamaCare is) not gonna happen," Obama said. "House Republicans will have to decide whether to join the Senate and keep the government open, or shut it down because they can't get their way. ... This grandstanding has real effects on real people."
Obama also warned Republicans to back down on threats to tie an increase in the debt ceiling to other demands, claiming a U.S. default would cause an "economic shutdown."
Should Republicans stand by their anti-ObamaCare demands, Democrats have launched an aggressive campaign to pre-emptively blame them for a government shutdown. During a post-vote press conference, Senate Democrats displayed a countdown clock to the "Republican government shutdown."
"I don't know of anyone who wants to shut down the government. The only thing we want to shut down is ObamaCare," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said.
Amid the fighting, federal agencies are warning about the impact of the looming shutdown. The Pentagon warned Friday that as many as 400,000 civilian workers could be furloughed. Military personnel are not subject to furlough and would continue to work, for the time being, without pay.
Democrats used the doomsday scenarios to pressure Republicans into backing down.
"We've passed the only bill that can avert a government shutdown Monday night. I've said this on the floor -- I say it again: This is it," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said.
Earlier Friday, Reid narrowly won approval to restore funding for ObamaCare. The 54-44 vote fell along party lines.
That was after the Senate voted 79-19 on the initial version of the bill, which in its original form would keep the government open while defunding ObamaCare. Several Republicans joined Democrats in voting "yes" on that vote, ignoring appeals by Cruz and other conservatives to stall the bill.
The first roll call had put Republicans in a difficult position, and prompted a very-public spate of infighting. Tea Party-aligned Republicans like Cruz, who staged a 21-hour anti-ObamaCare speech on the Senate floor this week, argued that Republicans should stop this bill in its tracks. Though the bill technically defunded ObamaCare -- which Cruz and his colleagues wanted -- they argued that since Reid would restore the funding, they should vote "no."
A number of Republicans rejected this logic.
"I don't understand how I can otherwise vote on a matter that I want to see passed," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. (Click to see the vote breakdown.)
Though the test vote put Senate Republicans in a tricky spot, the bigger question is what House Republicans will do next.
If Republicans stand by their demand that ObamaCare be defunded, delayed or otherwise undermined, then the two chambers could easily be at an impasse by midnight on Monday.
Tempers and rhetoric were heated on Friday as Democrats accused their Republican colleagues of playing with legislative fire.
"We are at one of the most dangerous points in our history right now -- every bit as dangerous as the break-up of the Union before the Civil War," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
But Republicans are treating their push to defund ObamaCare with urgency, in part because a key part of the law is set to go into effect next week.
"ObamaCare is the biggest job killer in the country," Cruz said.