WASHINGTON — Democrats are fighting Republicans. The White House is fighting Congress. Mainstream Republicans are fighting Tea Party Republicans. Even Tea Party Republicans are fighting among themselves, with House and Senate blocs accusing each other of lacking the stomach for the fight ahead.
The dizzying political divides are setting the stage for an especially tense House vote Friday on a plan engineered by Tea Party lawmakers that would deny funding for President Obama’s health care law as a condition for keeping the government open.
Conservative members of the House, defying party leaders who say the latest tactics will hurt the GOP, say they cannot retreat from the fight over the health law, even though it is a nonstarter in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
“Folks in my district, they sent me back here [to] just do whatever we can to stop it,” said Representative Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana Republican. “Our goal has been to provide protection to the American people from a health care law that is just creating so much chaos.”
Friday’s vote will mark the opening provocation in a particularly chaotic brawl, even by the standards of Washington.
Lawmakers are running out of time, with just 10 days left, to avoid a federal government shutdown for the first time since 1995. Compounding the problem is that if the nation’s borrowing limit is not raised within the next month or so, the government will default on its debt. A failure on either front could significantly harm the still-struggling economy, particularly a default on the debt.
The man at the center of the fight, Republican House Speaker John Boehner, is a reluctant warrior. He gave in to the demands of his most conservative members this week to tie the health care funding battle to the government funding fight because he failed to get his restive members to rally around a less aggressive plan.
Influential conservative voices — including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, top political adviser Karl Rove, and the Chamber of Commerce — have urged House Republicans to avoid a showdown that they are likely to lose, given Democrats’ unity in protecting Obama’s signature legislative achievement.
But many Tea Party lawmakers, egged on by Club for Growth and other political groups that have supported insurgent candidates challenging Republican incumbents in primaries, say they hear from passionate constituents during town hall meetings that they must do all they can to block the health law.
“Interview folks who come to our town halls,” said Representative Tom Graves, a Georgia Republican. “When you see the hurt and the pain and the concern in their eyes, you will understand why we have the resolve . . . to stand up and do everything we can for them.’’
And Boehner, though he insisted he does not want a government shutdown, echoed their cry Thursday that the health care law is a “train wreck” that needs to be stopped.
He urged Senate Republicans, who are a minority, to join him. “The fight here has been won,” Boehner said, referring to the House. “The fight over there is just beginning.”
Boehner has a separate vote planned within the next few weeks that would raise the debt ceiling, but only on the condition that several GOP policy goals are met, including a delay in the health law and the approval of a controversial oil pipeline from Canada.
But many Republican senators have warned that the latest fight over Obama’s health law is a waste of time, at best, and a risk to the nation’s economy, at worst.
House Republicans were especially upset that a chief proponent of their strategy, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, appeared to retreat earlier this week from trying to carry the fight to the Senate. He said in a statement Wednesday that Senate majority leader Harry Reid “appears to have the votes” to thwart the plan and that it would be up to House Republicans to “stand firm.”
Democrats, aware that Republicans are fighting among themselves and that opinion polls show most Americans would blame the GOP for a shutdown, appeared almost gleeful as they addressed reporters this week.
“My Republican colleagues have been doing a great job of explaining the House plan,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on Thursday.
“For example Senator Burr said, ‘It’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,’ ” Reid said, quoting Richard Burr of North Carolina.
Time is running short to avoid a government shutdown on Sept. 30. If the House bill passes Friday, the Democratic-controlled Senate can recraft it and send to the House a version that restores money for the health plan while funding the government. The House, which is trimming its scheduled recess next week to deal with the impasse, would then have to vote on whether to accept a modified version of the measure.
Boehner and other Republicans would not say how far they are willing to extend their standoff with Democrats. It’s possible leaders from both parties can craft a compromise plan together, though they have had little contact so far.
In a briefing Thursday, White House officials began to outline some of the drastic measures that would be taken if the government shuts down on Oct. 1. Government agencies on Tuesday were told to update their plans for how they would deal with the situation.
Active-duty military, including those serving overseas, would have their paychecks held until Congress passed a new bill. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees would be told not to come into work. Loans for small businesses would be on hold, federal research projects would be halted, and no new Federal Housing Administration loans for homeowners would be approved.