Shutdown showdown intensifies over Obamacare delay

WASHINGTON - The United States braced for a partial government shutdown Tuesday after the White House and congressional Democrats declared they would reject a bill approved by the Republican-led House to delay implementing President Barack Obama's health care reform.

If the midnight Monday deadline passes without a deal, a shutdown would affect a wide range of government programs, from national parks to the Pentagon.

President Barack Obama and the leader of the Democratic-controlled Senate dismissed a late developing plan approved early Sunday by the Republican-run House of Representatives that would delay by a year implementing key parts of the new health care law and repeal a tax on many medical devices that helps finance the 2010 measure, in exchange for avoiding a shutdown.

The White House promised a veto and said Republicans were pursuing "a narrow ideological agenda ... and pushing the government toward shutdown."  It seemed unlikely the president would get the chance to veto the bill because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate would reject the measure.

It was another of the paralyzing fiscal fights that have dominated Washington in recent years, underscoring the deep divide between the Republicans and the Obama administration and its Democratic allies. The two sides have managed in the past to come up with last-minute compromises to avoid a government shutdown.

Lawmakers spoke past one another on the Sunday talk shows, often rehashing the turbulent fights about the health care overhaul, often called "Obamacare," that the Supreme Court has upheld, as the nation edged toward the first government shutdown in 17 years.

"I agree we should have this debate, but we shouldn't connect it to a government shutdown. That's the fundamental disagreement between the two sides here," said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

"We're not going to pass it because it is wrong to do a shutdown of government as the lever to make a change."

The House's near party-line vote was 231-192, shifting the focus to the Democratic-run Senate less than 48 hours before government funds would run dry.

Even if that happens, some critical services such patrolling the borders, inspecting meat and controlling air traffic would continue. Social Security benefits would be sent and the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs for the elderly and poor would continue to pay doctors and hospitals.

The Senate was not scheduled to meet until midafternoon Monday, 10 hours before a shutdown would begin, and even some Republicans said privately they feared that Senate Democratic leader Reid held the advantage in the fast-approaching end game.

If so, a House Republican rank and file that includes numerous allies of the ultraconservative tea party movement would have to choose between triggering a shutdown or coming away empty-handed from their latest confrontation with Obama.

"We will not shut the government down," said the No. 3 House Republican leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California. "If we have to negotiate a little longer, we will continue to negotiate," he added without elaboration.

He suggested the House would "get back together in enough time, send another provision not to shut the government down, but to fund it, and it will have a few other options in there for the Senate to look at again."

McCarthy said the House would not relent on demands for "fundamental changes into 'Obamacare' that can protect the economy."

Republicans said the law was costing jobs and driving up costs.

"The American people overwhelmingly reject 'Obamacare,"' said Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "They understand it's not working. The only people who aren't listening to the argument are the career politicians in Washington. It's Harry Reid who wants to use brute political force."

Obama has said he won't let the law, his chief domestic achievement, be gutted. Democrats say Republicans are obsessed with attacking the overhaul, which is aimed at providing health coverage for millions of uninsured Americans, and the president.

The House bill did contain new concessions from Republicans, who have criticized the requirements imposed on insurers.

They said their measure would leave intact most parts of the law that have taken effect, including requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions and to let families' plans cover children up to age 26.

An exception: Insurers would be allowed to deny contraceptive coverage based on religious or moral objections.

But it would delay a requirement for people to purchase coverage or face a penalty, and the creation of marketplaces, which are supposed to start functioning this Tuesday, where people could shop for health care coverage from private insurers.

Repealing the 2.3 percent medical device tax would boost deficits by roughly $29 billion over the coming decade -- even though Republicans won the House majority in 2010 by pledging to tighten the nation's finances.

The shutdown bill brought unity, for the moment, to Republicans who have recently been divided and, at times, openly antagonistic toward each other.

House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders initially preferred waging the fight over health care on a separate bill for raising the government's debt limit, thus avoiding threatening a shutdown.

But a small cadre of younger Republicans led by Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah whipped up sentiment among fellow conservatives for using the shutdown measure for an all-out assault on the Affordable Care Act.

That drew scorn from many Republicans who saw it as an effort that could never prevail with Obama in the White House and Democrats in control of the Senate, and that might prompt a shutdown for which voters would fault the Republicans. Yet many conservatives have not relented.

The House also approved a separate bill paying troops, plus some defense contractors and civilian Pentagon workers, should a shutdown occur. The vote was 423-0.

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Associated Press writers Alan Fram and David Espo contributed to this report.

 

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