House passes stopgap spending bill

But the measure is contingent upon killing funds for health care.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICESeptember 21, 2013 

WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama quickly made it clear they had no intention of going along, putting the government on a course toward a shutdown unless one side relents.

The 230-189 party-line vote in a bitterly divided House set in motion a fiscal confrontation with significant implications - politically and economically - but with an uncertain ending. Without a resolution, large parts of the government could shut down Oct. 1, and a first-ever default on federal debt could follow weeks later. Each side predicted that the other would be held responsible, but determined House Republicans knew they were taking a risk even as leaders of the party's establishment warned about the threat of destructive political consequences.

Obama called House Speaker John A. Boehner on Friday evening but only to reiterate that he would not negotiate with him on raising the federal debt limit and said it was Congress' constitutional obligation to pay the nation's bills. Both sides described the call as brief and fruitless.

Senate Democratic leaders prepared to answer the House's move with a vote in the coming days - possibly on the eve of government funding expiring - to strip the health care provision from the spending bill, and send it back to the House with little time for Republicans to change it. Boehner would then face a decision on how to respond.

After the House vote, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, called out by name Democratic senators running for re-election in Republican states, daring them to stand by the health care law.

"We're in this fight and we want the Senate to join us," Cantor said at a Republican rally celebrating passage of the spending bill.

Visiting Missouri, Obama struck back at Republicans a few hours after the vote.

"They're focused on politics," Obama told autoworkers at a Ford plant in Liberty. "They're focused on trying to mess with me; they're not focused on you."

In a searing criticism of those threatening to refuse to raise the debt ceiling next month, causing the United States to default on its debts, Obama called the potential action "profoundly destructive." If it happens, he said, "America becomes a deadbeat."

The events left Washington staring at the first government shutdown since 1996.

Lawmakers brushed up on the lessons of the five days of November 1995, when 800,000 federal workers were sent home, and the 21-day partial shutdown from that December to January, when half the government closed.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the White House budget director, told executive branch officials to begin preparing by updating their contingency plans and determining what would go offline.

The relevant laws have provisions to ensure that a shutdown is "orderly" and to protect "the safety of human life or the protection of property," she wrote to agencies. Otherwise, though, much of the government that is paid for through the congressional appropriations process would close shop. Soldiers would report for duty but would not be paid. National parks and monuments would shut down, with any tourists told to vacate within 48 hours. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers would go on unpaid furloughs.

That said, many government functions would continue because of how they are paid for or because they are deemed vital. Air traffic controllers, border security officials and other public safety officers would remain at work. Social Security checks would continue to go out. Medicare would keep paying doctors and hospitals, although its claims processing systems might be disrupted. The self-financed Postal Service would remain operating as well.

Officials from both parties involved in past shutdowns warned that House Republicans stand to come out on the losing end.

Michael Horowitz, who was general counsel for President Ronald Reagan's budget office during a brief government shutdown, said the White House would have broad latitude to decide which workers were considered essential, which agencies to close entirely and how chaotic the closings would be.

In a twist, Obama could easily declare the workings of the Affordable Care Act essential to life and property, keeping open the one effort Republicans are targeting while shutting down other parts of the government they support.

"For Congress to ask for a shutdown when the opposite political party is in charge of the White House is my definition of insanity," Horowitz said.

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