WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled House approved a bill Friday that would keep the government open through mid-December while eliminating funding for President Obama’s health care law, setting up a showdown with the Democrat-controlled Senate as the clock ticks toward a possible government shutdown.
If the sides fail to bridge a wide gap before Sept. 30, the government will suspend all but essential services the next day, just as several key provisions of Obama’s health law are set to take effect. It would be the first shutdown since 1995.
Republican lawmakers, confronting Democrats against the will of several GOP leaders, say they have the American people behind them, citing polls that show diminishing support for the health law. But polls also show that most Americans would blame Republicans for a shutdown, and both Obama and Senate Democrats have vowed to safeguard the health care law, Obama’s signature legislative achievement.
Friday’s 230 to 189 vote, nearly completely along party lines, followed raucous debate over an issue that clearly defines the polarization in Washington over the role of government and the tools Republican lawmakers are willing to use to fight for their philosophy.
“The constitutional conservatives in the House are keeping their word to their constituents and the nation to ensure that we’ve done everything in our power to protect our constituents from the most unpopular piece of legislation ever passed,” said Representative John Culberson, a Texas Republican, during debate on the House floor.
“It’s time to free Americans from the shackles of Obamacare,” said Representative Ted Poe, another Texas Republican, who read from a letter he said was sent by a constituent who said she had to send her son to live with relatives because her employer cut back her hours in anticipation of the law’s impact.
The eight members of the Massachusetts delegation, all Democrats, unanimously opposed the GOP measure. Only two Democrats supported the bill and only one Republican opposed it in the House.
The House has now voted more than 40 times to repeal the health law, but this is the first time Republican leaders have used a spending bill in hopes of gutting it. Minutes after the vote, Republican lawmakers held a triumphant rally in an august House meeting room, cheering as their leaders decried the health law and challenged senators to join them in killing it.
Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, specifically called on three Democrats facing tough reelections in conservative states next year — Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina — to join the fight.
“We’ve said from the beginning that this law will harm our economy,” Cantor said. “And we’re seeing our economy turn from a full-time job economy to a part-time job economy.”
Democrats said passage of the bill was a sign that the most conservative faction of the GOP was not only prepared to risk a dangerous government shutdown but to press an agenda that will hurt the neediest.
Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, took to the floor to say the bill is “without a doubt, a measure designed to shut down government.”
“This place is a mess,” she said. “Let’s get our house in order. We are legislators. We have come here to do a job for the American people.”
“I’m not sure what their end game is,” said Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, still furious that House Republicans voted to cut about $4 billion a year from the food stamp program Thursday. “Their intentions are clear. They don’t believe in a public sector. They want to tear everything down and in my opinion, if they succeed, they’ll hurt a lot of people.”
While Friday’s vote was a bold statement, both sides seemed well aware that it was not the last word.
“House Republicans will pass this bill. It will sail off to the Senate, surely to return,” said Representative Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the tax-writing committee. “Then it will be squarely up to the speaker of this House. Will he act as the captain of the entire House of Representatives or remain a captive of his right-wing Republican mates?”
Levin said the Republican bill would strip 70 percent of funding from a program that insures needy children and cut benefits for the elderly, in addition to threatening a government shutdown.
The $986.3 billion spending bill would fund the government through Dec. 15 at current levels, including the across-the-board cuts in government spending imposed earlier this year known as the sequester. Democrats would like to restore those cuts and have said they will definitely not delay or defund Obama’s health law.
In a statement, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, repeated his vow to rewrite the bill to fund the government without killing the health law.
“Republicans are simply postponing for a few days the inevitable choice they must face: Pass a clean bill to fund the government, or force a shutdown,” he said.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and other House leaders have not said what they will do when the bill returns to the House, leaving the door open for compromise or retreat.
Republican lawmakers pushed back against the charge that they were trying to shut down government and insisted that Friday’s vote showed they had a plan to prevent that. Next week, they also plan to vote on a bill that would raise the nation’s borrowing authority, set to expire sometime in October. Once again, they plan to attach more of their pet issues to a must-pass bill, including a delay in the health law and approval of a controversial oil pipeline from Canada.
House Republicans have included measures to curtail the health law in both the spending bill and the debt-limit bill in hopes of tying the issues together and forcing Obama and the Democrats to negotiate on a package deal.
If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, the nation could default on its debts, which economists say would inflict even more damage to the economy than shutting down the government. Obama has said he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling, while Republicans say the issue has been used as a bargaining chip for decades.
“I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States,” Obama said Friday at a speech in Kansas City, Mo. “I am not going to allow anyone to harm this country’s reputation. I’m not going to allow them to inflict economic pain on millions of our own people just so they can make an ideological point.”
Yet Republicans argued that their intent is not to shutter the government or risk economic calamity.
“The Republican position is not to shut down the government, nor is it to put default on the table,” said Representative Charles W. Boustany Jr., a Louisiana Republican. “We want to maximize our leverage.”
Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com.