House Republicans on Friday thrust President Barack Obama‘s health law into the middle of two looming fiscal battles, a strategy that roils Congress’s efforts to keep the government solvent this fall and avoid a partial government shutdown in less than two weeks.
The House on Friday passed a Republican bill to keep the government funded starting Oct. 1. That measure, however, also eliminates money for the health-care law. It was a triumph for a wing of the Republican Party that has campaigned for months to convince GOP leaders to make a fight over the health law a top priority.
With the government-funding issue unresolved, House Republicans opened another front Friday. Following a closed-door GOP strategy session, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) set a vote for the coming week on legislation that would link a yearlong postponement of the health law’s implementation to a yearlong extension of the government’s borrowing authority. The law’s online insurance marketplaces are set to go live Oct. 1 for policies that will take effect in January.
Neither challenge to the health law is likely to survive the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The simultaneous showdowns and the injection of the health-care issue risk creating a market-rattling impasse reminiscent of the fight over raising the debt limit in 2011 that resulted in the U.S.’s credit rating being downgraded.
The budget that currently allocates funds to the federal government expires Sept. 30. Then, by mid-October, Congress would need to raise the federal debt limit or the government will run out of ways to keep paying its bills.
Mr. Obama called House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) Friday night to say he wouldn’t negotiate on the debt limit, according to an aide to Mr. Boehner, reiterating comments the president made earlier in the day in Claycomo, Mo. The speaker replied that “the two chambers of Congress will chart the path ahead,” the Boehner aide said.
“We’re not some banana republic. This is not some deadbeat nation,” Mr. Obama said earlier at the Missouri event. “So what I’ve said is, I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States.”
The House bill would cut off all federal spending for implementing and running the health law, including subsidies to help low-income people pay their premiums and federal funding for states expanding their Medicaid programs.
The conservatives’ victory Friday could be short-lived. The Senate in the coming week is expected to restore the health-care money and throw the government-funding bill back to the House. Republican leaders are hoping they will build up enough momentum to pressure Democrats to accept health-law cuts or other budget concessions during the debt-limit fight instead.
“The key thing is we are going to negotiate over the debt limit. The president isn’t going to be able to say, ‘I’m just simply not going to talk with anybody,’ ” Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.) told reporters Friday.
The House bill, which would keep the government funded through mid-December, was approved 230-189, with two Democrats voting for it and one Republican voting against it.
The Republican strategy reflects the pressure the party’s leaders have been put under by an energized libertarian caucus in the House along with tea-party activists who say they’re responding to public hostility toward a health-care law many people still don’t understand.
“This law is a train wreck,” Mr. Boehner told a boisterous rally of House Republicans on Friday inside the Capitol. “It’s time for us to say, No.”
Some Democrats are concerned about unpopular elements of the health-care law, especially lawmakers from conservative districts such as Reps. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Jim Matheson of Utah, the two Democrats who voted with Republicans Friday.
At the House GOP rally, Mr. Cantor turned the focus onto Senate Democrats facing re-election in conservative states in 2014, including Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Begich of Alaska. Mr. Cantor suggested they would suffer politically if they didn’t support cutting off health-law funding.
Most Democrats, however, see the GOP effort to make “defunding Obamacare” central to their budget strategy as a political gift because it helps their effort to portray the GOP as reckless and disruptive in their pursuit of ideological goals.
“Watching that GOP rally was like watching kamikaze cheerleaders,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D., N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats. “They should have handed out parachutes.”
The emergence of the defund campaign marks a shift that eclipses the Republican Party’s traditional focus on demanding spending cuts and long-term deficit-reduction measures in exchange for lifting the debt limit.
“The defunding or delay of Obama care has become pre-eminent,” said Rep. Tom Rooney (R., Fla.). “It’s a little frustrating to those of us who look at this time of year as the time to address the debt.”
Congress has to act on a routine government funding bill by Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends, because it has not yet approved any appropriations for the new fiscal year.
If it fails, the government won’t actually shut down. Agencies will pay Social Security benefits, the military will stand watch and other essential government services will continue. Many federal employees, however, will stop getting paid and some services will be disrupted.
Still, members of both parties are eager to avoid a shutdown, especially Republicans, who fear their party will be blamed for any disruption, as they were after a shutdown in 1995 and 1996. Failure to raise the borrowing limit could send financial markets haywire and damage the U.S.’s ability to borrow.
When the House funding bill goes to the Senate on Monday, Democrats pledge to restore funding for the health law. Members of both parties say that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) has enough votes to do so, although the process may entail overcoming procedural hurdles that could absorb the week.
The bill would then return to the House, where GOP leaders would need to decide whether to bring it up without changes.
“I’m much more confident there won’t be a shutdown,” said Rep. Pete King (R., N.Y.). But he predicted the debate could drag out until the deadline because the House may not immediately pass, without change, the Senate’s version of the funding extension. “There could be some more back and forth.”
Republicans say the House could be willing to approve a government-funding bill without the health-law language because conservatives have been promised another fight over the issue on the debt-ceiling bill. That legislation is expected to include an array of other GOP legislative proposals, including a broad framework for writing a tax-overhaul bill and a provision to expedite the legislation.
The provision, which is based on a similar measure passed by the House last year, would create fast-track procedures for committee consideration in the House and Senate, and allow for automatic votes on the House and Senate floors.
Other proposals likely to be linked to the debt-limit bill are a requirement that Mr. Obama approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is designed to carry oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It also would include provisions to curb spending in Medicare, but it isn’t expected to include any of the major changes in entitlement programs that deficit hawks have been pushing for years.
“We’re not talking about that at all,” said Mr. Rooney. “I wish we would.”
—John D. McKinnon contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared September 21, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Health Law Thrust Into Fiscal Fights.
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