WASHINGTON - The federal government on Saturday barreled toward its first shutdown in 17 years after House Republicans chose a hard line, demanding a one-year delay of President Barack Obama's health care law and the repeal of a tax to pay for the law before approving any funds to keep the government running.
Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting Saturday unified and confident that they had the votes to delay the health care law and eliminate its tax on medical devices. But the Democrats in the Senate said they would not accept the new proposal. The House's action all but ensured that large swaths of the government will be shuttered as of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
A separate House Republican bill would also ensure that military personnel continue to be paid in the event of a government shutdown, an acknowledgement that a shutdown was likely. The health law delay and the troop funding bill was set for House passage Saturday.
"The American people don't want a government shutdown, and they don't want Obamacare," House Republican leaders said in a joint statement. "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."
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., flashed his temper when asked what would happen when the Senate rejects the House's offer.
"How dare you presume a failure?" he snapped. "We continue to believe there's an opportunity for sensible compromise, and I will not accept from anybody the assumption of failure."
In fact, many House Republicans acknowledged that they expected the Senate to reject the House's provisions, making a shutdown all but assured. House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio faced a critical decision this weekend: accept a bill passed by the Senate on Friday to keep the government funded and the health care law intact and risk a conservative revolt that could threaten his speakership, or make one more effort to damage the president's signature domestic initiative and hope that a government shutdown would not do serious political damage to his party.
With no guarantee that Democrats would help him out of his jam, he chose the shutdown option. The House's unruly conservatives had more than enough votes to defeat a spending bill that would not do significant damage to the health care law, unless Democrats were willing to bail out the speaker. And Democrats showed little inclination to alleviate the intraparty warfare among Republicans.
"The federal government has shut down 17 times before, sometimes when the Democrats were in control, sometimes with divided government," shrugged Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. "What are we doing on our side of the aisle? We're fighting for the American people."
Veteran House Republicans say there is still one plausible path away from the brink. The Senate could take up the House spending bill, strip out the one-year health care delay and accept the medical device tax repeal as a face-saving victory for Republicans. The tax, worth $30 billion over 10 years, has ardent opponents among Democrats as well, and even with its repeal, the health care law is still likely to lower the deficit in the coming decade, not raise it, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
But Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, has already said he will not accept even that measure as a condition to keep the government operating. Even if he did, a single senator could slow action in the chamber well past the Sept. 30 shutdown deadline, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has said he will accept nothing short of a one-year delay.
A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide said the Senate will strip both health care provisions out of the bill and send it back to the House once again clean of policy prescriptions.
"By pandering to the Tea Party minority and trying to delay the benefits of health care reform for millions of seniors and families, House Republicans are now actively pushing for a completely unnecessary government shutdown," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.
The mood in the Capitol on Saturday - at least among Republicans - was downright giddy. When Republican leaders presented their plan in a closed-door meeting Saturday afternoon, cheers and chants of "Vote, vote, vote!" went up. As members left the meeting, many of them wore beaming grins.
"Like 9/11, let's roll!" Rep. John Culberson of Texas said he shouted to the Republican conference. That the Senate would almost certainly reject the health care delay, he added, was not a concern. "I can't control what the Senate does. Ulysses S. Grant used to say, 'Boys, quit worryin' about what Bobby Lee is doing. And I want to know what we are doing.' And that's what the House is doing today, thank God."