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As shutdown looms, GOP ties funding bill to heath law

Spoiling for a fight, and prepared to risk a government shutdown

House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders placed responsibility for averting a government shutdown back in the Senate’s court on Saturday.MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

WASHINGTON — The nation careened Saturday toward a likely shutdown as House Republicans insisted on a new measure that would fund the government only if President Obama’s health law is delayed by a year and a tax needed to fund it is scrapped.

The House decision to escalate the standoff with Democrats in the Senate over Obama’s signature legislation ensures the tense brinksmanship that has consumed Washington for the past two weeks will continue until the final hours before the funding deadline of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday — and perhaps beyond.

Until then, the Republican-run House and the Democratic-run Senate are engaged in a high stakes game of hot potato, hoping that whichever side is last to pass a funding measure avoids blame for a shutdown, which would be the first since 1996. On Saturday, neither side said it would yield to the other.


“We will do our job and send this bill over, and then it’s up to the Senate to pass it and stop a government shutdown,” Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement with fellow House leaders.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, called the House action, scheduled for late Saturday night, “pointless.”

“After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at square one,” Reid said in a statement. “We continue to be willing to debate these issues in a calm and rational atmosphere, but the American people will not be extorted by Tea Party anarchists.”

Obama spokesman Jay Carney echoed those remarks in his own statement, saying the president would work with Republicans to change parts of the health law, but not as part of negotiations over funding the government or raising the nation’s borrowing authority, which is up against a mid-October deadline to avoid a default.

“Republicans in Congress had the opportunity to pass a routine, simple continuing resolution that keeps the government running for a few more weeks,” Carney said. “Republicans decided they would rather make an ideological point by demanding the sabotage of the health care law.”


After midnight the House passed both amendments, to delay the health care law for one year and to repeal the tax on medical devices. The vote on the one-year delay was 231-192, while the vote on scrapping the medical devices tax was 245-172.

The health law, passed in 2010, has withstood more than 40 House votes to repeal it, as well as a Supreme Court challenge. Key components are set to take effect Tuesday, the day the government could shut down. But US officials said that the rollout would not be halted in the event of a shutdown.

Economists have warned that a prolonged shutdown could damage the economy and that failing to raise the debt ceiling would be especially harmful.

Polls have shown most Americans will blame the GOP for a shutdown. Saturday’s action was another triumph for hard-liners in the Republican Party, bolstered by outside political groups, who have defied warnings from their party leaders that the confrontational strategy over the health law will ultimately fail.

The Senate had already rejected a House plan on Friday to strip funding from the health law as a condition of keeping the government open.

“We are willing to offer a compromise, and that compromise is to delay Obamacare,” said Representative Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican.


Reflecting the charged language of many of his colleagues, Brooks labeled the health law, modeled after the one in Massachusetts, “socialized medicine” and said it posed a danger to the nation’s health and solvency.

The House bill to fund the government through mid- December would also eliminate a medical device tax intended to generate $29.1 billion over 10 years to help fund the health law. The tax is unpopular with both parties — even Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a liberal Democrat, has voted in favor of its repeal.

But Democrats have said attempts to gut or weaken the health law were non-negotiable as part of the fiscal standoff. And the tax is an important component of paying for the bill unless a replacement is found. In addition, many hard-line Republicans said they would settle for nothing less than a full delay of the law.

Many House Republicans continued to believe that Democrats were bluffing and would ultimately negotiate over funding the shutdown, the debt limit, or both. Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, lost his temper when a reporter asked what the House would do when their latest move is rejected by the Senate.

“How dare you presume a failure?” Issa said, staring down the reporter from close range and rasing his voice. “How dare you, how dare you, how dare you presume a failure? The fact is, this country is based on people saying they won’t do things and at the end of the day coming together for compromise.”


The Senate is in recess until Monday afternoon, leaving little time for negotiations, even if senators are asked to return early. Democrats seemed content to watch Republicans fight among themselves.

“This is theater of the absurd,” said Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat. “They’re playing games with the economy.”

Republicans tried to shift responsibility to Obama. They called on the president, who was golfing Saturday, to negotiate. “The president is absolutely to the point of ridiculous by sticking his heels in the ground and saying he’s not going to negotiate with us,” said Representative Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican.

House Republicans seemed aware that a shutdown was becoming increasingly likely, and were trying to curb the political fallout. In addition to the funding bill that would delay the health law, they proposed a separate plan to ensure members of the military would be paid in the event of a shutdown.

A shutdown would close national parks, furlough hundreds of thousands of US employees, and stall loans, among other effects. But certain services deemed essential, including public safety, would continue.

Some Republicans tried to minimize the potential impact.

“There is no such thing as a shutdown,” said Representative Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican. “It’s actually a slowdown . . . All this is a function of negotiating.”

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com . Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.