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House delays Obamacare, pushes US toward shutdown

UPDATED 9/29/13 at 12:40 a.m. - The government is headed for a shutdown after House Republicans on Saturday voted 231-192 to delay President Obama’s signature
US House Republican meeting- Boehner- 09/28/13
US Speaker of the House John Boehner (C) walks out of a meeting with House Republicans, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA, 28 September 2013.

UPDATED 9/29/13 at 12:40 a.m. - The government is headed for a shutdown after House Republicans on Saturday voted 231-192 to delay President Obama’s signature health care law as a precondition for funding the government. The White House and Democratic leaders in the Senate said they would reject all efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, setting the stage for mass disruption of government services and payments beginning Tuesday.

"The House is about to vote to shut down the government -- nothing more, nothing less," Dan Pfeiffer, a senior White House adviser, told NBC News before the vote.

House Republicans first unveiled their proposal, which would keep the government open until Dec. 15 in exchange for a one-year delay of Obamacare, earlier Saturday. While Republicans portrayed the move as a compromise from their earlier vote to defund the law entirely, Senate Democrats and the White House likened it to extortion and accused House leaders of giving in to their most extreme members' demands.

The House GOP's decision to drive a hard line on health care rather than pass a "clean" spending bill means a government shutdown -- the first since 1996 -- is practically inevitable on Oct. 1. The White House announced in a statement that Obama would veto the House's bill, but the odds of it ever reaching the president's desk are extremely low. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wouldn't even bring it to the floor for a vote.

"To be absolutely clear, the Senate will reject both the one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act and the repeal of the medical device tax," Reid said in a statement Saturday. "After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at square one: Republicans must decide whether to pass the Senate's clean CR, or force a Republican government shutdown."

The House's move is a significant victory for conservatives, who have spent months agitating for a no-holds-barred confrontation over Obamacare, whose insurance exchanges open for enrollment the same day that government funding runs out. The new bill came after conservative Republicans resisted Boehner’s attempt to persuade the caucus to delay the fight until the Oct. 17 debt-ceiling deadline.

Republicans enthusiastically embraced Obamacare delay in a special closed-door meeting on Saturday, breaking out into huge applause as members cheered "Let's vote!"

"The whole room: 'Let's vote!'" Congressman John Culberson of Texas recalled. "I said, like 9/11, 'let's roll!'"

Culberson was referring to a quote from Todd Beamer aboard United Airlines Flight 93, a plane hijacked by al Qaeda terrorists on Sept. 11 that crashed in Pennsylvania after Beamer and other passengers fought to regain control.

The House GOP's plan virtually ensures that the clock will run out before Congress can pass a stopgap budget that will keep the government open after Monday. On Friday, the Senate passed a six-week budget extension stripped of a provision to defund Obamacare, which the House had previously inserted.

The new House Republican plan attaches a longer stopgap budget to a one-year delay of Obamacare, as well as a repeal of the health reform law's tax on medical device makers, which passed 248-174 on Saturday night. Seventeen Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the repeal of the 2.3 percent tax on sales of medical devices. Two moderate Democrats also voted for the Obamacare delay—Reps. Jim Matheson of Utah and Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina. Two Republicans voted with Democrats against it: Reps. Chris Gibson and Richard Hanna, both of New York.

The House passed a separate bill with unanimous bipartisan support to ensure that military service members would continued to be paid in the advent of a shutdown. Prior to the vote, Democrat members leaving a caucus meeting Saturday evening explained their support for the measure, despite their opposition to the GOP's Obamacare delay. "Just because Congress can do our job doesn't mean our military men and women are not doing theirs, and they should be paid," said Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran.

GOP members broadly denied that a shutdown was inevitable, insisting it would be the Senate's responsibility to act. Even moderate Republicans who previously called the conservatives' defunding push unrealistic said they backed the new plan, arguing that it would bring Democrats to the negotiating table over Obamacare. Congressman Tom Cole, who once called a shutdown to block the Affordable Care Act a "suicidal political tactic," told reporters the latest proposal might garner votes from red state Democrats in the Senate, despite their stated opposition to a delay.

"I'm very supportive of it," he said. "I think our conference is totally unified behind this."

Congressman Michael Grimm of New York, a vocal critic of Cruz, suggested that President Obama might be willing to negotiate on an Obamacare delay if Republicans agreed to reverse some of the sequestration cuts and tied it to a debt-ceiling hike. Obama, for his part, has said he refuses to negotiate over the country's creditworthiness at all.

"My sense is there would be sweeteners to go with it," Grimm said.

House Republicans demurred, however, when asked what comes next if and when the Senate rejects the measure.

Polls suggest that the public will be more inclined to blame Republicans for a shutdown, which could put pressure on Boehner to relent. But the path towards a resolution is highly uncertain in light of an even more serious fiscal deadline: the Oct. 17 deadline for raising the debt ceiling or risk default.

"I fear this is a warmup act to the debt ceiling," said former White House economist Jared Bernstein. "The inability to get a clean [short-term budget] out of the House—something I believe the Republican leadership actually wants—should dispel any lingering doubts about who's in control over there.