US Senate may act to avert a shutdown

NY Times News Service, WASHINGTON

Tue, Oct 01, 2013 - Page 7

The US Senate is expected to reject decisively a US House of Representatives bill that would delay the full effect of US President Barack Obama’s healthcare law as a condition for keeping the government running today. US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, expressed confidence that he had public opinion on his side.

Angering Republicans who lead the House of Representatives, Reid kept the Senate shuttered on Sunday, in a calculated move to stall action on the House measure until yesterday afternoon, just hours before the government’s spending authority runs out at midnight.

“Unlock those doors, I say to Harry Reid,” said Republican Representative Ann Wagner, who stood on the steps of the empty Senate on Sunday with a dozen of her House colleagues. “Come out and do your job.”

However, Reid sees little incentive or political advantage in bowing to those demands. He has held 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 healthcare law in an unrelated fight over the budget, Reid’s hand has been strengthened.

US Senator Susan Collins became the latest Republican to criticize her House colleagues, saying on Sunday that an effort to link the healthcare amendments to the budget was “a strategy that cannot possibly work.”

Reid’s plan, which exploits the bypasses and delays available to him in congressional procedure, leaves little time for the House to act before today’s deadline.

The Senate yesterday was expected to send back to the House a plain budget bill, stripped of its provisions to delay the full effect of the healthcare law, repeal a tax on medical devices and allow businesses to opt out of contraception coverage for their employees.

All 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. US Senator Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, said that 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,” Durbin said.

Republicans would then face a difficult choice. US House of Representatives 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.

Republican Representative Charlie Dent said on 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,” Dent said. “It’s time to govern. I don’t intend to support a fool’s errand at this point.”

The Republican House leadership indicated on Sunday that it was planning to amend whatever the Senate sent back yesterday.

“I think the House will get back together in enough time, send another provision not to shut the government down, but to fund it,” said Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy, the majority whip. “And it will have a few other options in there for the Senate to look at again.”

Getting to that point would require agreement from a group of conservative Republicans who have often acted in discord with the rest of their conference. It would also require them to drop objections to defunding the healthcare law or delay the law’s full implementation for a year. People can begin signing up for insurance coverage under the law starting today.

Republican Representative Pat Tiberi, a close ally of Boehner’s, said House Republicans believe they have already compromised by backing away from their demand that the healthcare law be defunded. Members of a large and powerful bloc of conservatives said they would not vote for any further government spending unless the healthcare law was gutted. The speaker talked them back to a one-year delay.

“Harry Reid likes to excoriate the Tea Party members of our conference for not compromising, when he’s doing the exact same thing,” Tiberi said.

Durbin said Reid’s resolve not to compromise has been helped by the shenanigans in the House, what he views as game-playing in the Senate by hardliners like Ted Cruz, a Republican, and a sense that now is the time to break the power of Tea Party Republicans.

“This is what he believes,” Durbin said of Reid. “He’s sick and tired of the Tea Party caucus.”

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 Obama and Reid were slowing down the process to score political points.

They seized on a pair of images they hoped would resonate with the public: Obama playing golf on Saturday and Reid keeping the Senate dark until yesterday.

Boehner called Reid’s move “an act of breathtaking arrogance.”