updated, 4:15 p.m.
President Obama offered up a simple demand to House Republicans in an address to the nation on Friday.
“My message to Congress is this: Do not shut down the government, do not shut down the economy,” Obama said. “Pass a budget on time. Pay our bills on time.”
Addressing the twin crises facing Congress, a looming October 1 shutdown and an even more dangerous October 17 default, Obama said House Republicans needed to abandon “extremists” and address both issues without tying them to other policy fights. The tone and the timing of his brief remarks suggested that the White House was preparing for, perhaps even expecting, a shutdown to begin Monday.
“We’re not going to do this under the threat of blowing up the entire economy,” he said. “I will not negotiate over Congress’ responsibility to pay the bills that have already been racked up. Voting for the Treasury to pay America’s bills is not a concession to me. That’s not doing me a favor, that’s simply carrying out the solemn responsibilities that come with holding office.”
Obama’s remarks came hours after Democrats and Republicans resoundingly rejected a vote to block a House spending bill from advancing that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his allies had billed as a make-or-break test for conservatives.
The 79-19 vote to end debate on the continuing resolution Friday set the stage for the Senate to vote on stripping out a provision that would defund the Affordable Care Act. In the days leading up to the vote, Cruz held the floor for more than 21 hours continuously to argue that by advancing the bill, his Republican colleagues were effectively endorsing Obamacare.
Cruz’s caucus didn’t see it that way and the majority of them voted with Democrats to end debate. As many of them noted, Cruz’s procedural tactics required them to filibuster a House GOP bill that would cut off funding for the ACA’s implementation while funding the government through November 15. To them, voting against a subsequent amendment to strip out the anti-Obamacare provision – which passed 54-44 on party lines – was proof enough that they stood against the health care law. The final bill ended up passing by the same margin.
“I voted today to advance the exact bill that a handful of my colleagues asked for,” Republican Sen. Richard Burr tweeted after the vote, an allusion to Cruz’s longtime demand that the House and Senate bring up a bill to defund Obamacare.
Those who voted with Cruz included allies Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, both of whom – like Cruz – are widely expected to run for president in 2016. One surprise vote was Ohio Republican Rob Portman, who served as George W. Bush’s budget director and is usually considered a moderate within the party. Portman has also been bandied about as a potential presidential candidate and the vote could score him some points with the ultra-conservative primary voters backing Cruz’s crusade.
What happens next is less clear. House Speaker John Boehner is still considering how to respond to the Senate’s predictable rejection of his initial demands. He could pass a “clean” CR, which would fund the government at agreed-upon levels and garner the necessary support from the Senate and White House to prevent a shutdown. He could try to attach a less ambitious demand to a spending bill. Sen. John McCain, one of the fiercest critics of Cruz’s shutdown threats, suggested that they might be able to pressure Democrats into voting for a bill that included a proposal by Sen. David Vitter to cut off federal health care subsidies for lawmakers and their staff.
“If I were them I’d send back a clean CR with the Vitter language,” he said.
Then there’s the third option: Boehner could pass the same defund-Obamacare CR again or something just as toxic to Democrats, a bill demanding a delay of the law. Doing so would likely extend the budget fight past the Oct. 1 deadline to fund the government, leading to a government shutdown that would halt a variety of federal services, jobs, and payments.
Majority Leader Harry Reid praised Friday’s vote as a bipartisan rejection of “Tea Party anarchists” and urged House Republicans to quickly pass the Senate’s revised version of their bill. He said Democrats would “accept nothing that relates to Obamacare” in any House CR.
“This is no way to govern and it has to end,” he said.
Cruz, for his part, urged his colleagues in the House and Senate to repeat the same exercise once again and hope for a drastically different result.
“I hope and believe when the House takes this up again, House Republicans will continue to stand together on the side of the American people,” he told reporters after the vote. “And I’m also hopeful that when the House sends the bill back it will be an opportunity for every Senate Republican to come home.”
Looming in the background is an even bigger fight: the debt ceiling. Economists warn that if Congress fails to raise its borrowing limit by Oct. 17, the resulting default could trigger a catastrophic financial collapse.
“This grandstanding has real effects on real people,” Obama said in his Friday afternoon remarks. “Even the threat of a shutdown already is probably having a dampening effect on our economy.”