WASHINGTON — With a week to figure out how to keep the government open, leading senators in the fight over defunding Obamacare began a complicated procedural dance on Monday and exchanged sharp jabs.
As lawmakers squabbled, some federal agencies began preparing for a government shutdown. The White House budget office has ordered all agencies to make contingency plans, and the U.S. Department of Defense sent a memo to employees Monday warning that civilian workers could face furloughs if the government shuts down on Oct. 1.
“While military personnel would continue in a normal duty status, a large number of our civilian employees would be temporarily furloughed,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in the memo.
Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters that “a shutdown would put severe hardships on an already stressed workforce, and is totally unnecessary.”
The Republican-controlled House approved a bill on Friday that would provide funding through Dec. 15 for all government activities except the health care law.
The Senate, controlled by Democrats, began debate Monday on that bill.
The procedural tactics to strip the House language regarding Obamacare could consume the entire week.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who will control the process, said, “The Affordable Care Act has been the law of the land for four years. Democrats are willing to work with reasonable Republicans to improve this law.
“But we will not bow to tea party anarchists who deny the mere fact that Obamacare is the law ... The simple fact remains: Obamacare is the law of the land, and it will remain the law of the land as long as Barack Obama is president of the United States and as long as I am the Senate majority leader.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has been one of the primary drivers behind the effort to deny funding for the health care law, made a futile attempt Monday to fast-track the House bill through the Senate.
Cruz also tried unsuccessfully to require a 60-vote threshold for changing the House bill. Reid is hoping at the end of the process this week to strip the Obamacare language with a 51-vote majority.
Now, the most pressing goal for Cruz and other Republicans who want to see the House bill approved is to persuade GOP senators to vote against a bill they support.
Under the complex Senate rules, the bill must first clear some procedural hurdles before it can be changed. If Republicans help Reid get the bill past those procedural hurdles, Reid will then be able to rely on Democrats to strip the Obamacare language and send the bill back to the House.
So Cruz, who pressured the House to defund Obamacare in a must-pass spending bill, is now working to keep the bill from advancing.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Cruz decried the “tendency towards brinksmanship” in Washington, and he accused Reid of risking a government shutdown “because he supports a law called Obamacare.”
It's not clear how House Republicans will respond if the Senate sends back a bill that funds all of government, including Obamacare.
In Oklahoma, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, who voted for the House bill last week, spoke out strongly against the prospect of a government shutdown.
“It is a faulty, irresponsible strategy that will have grave consequences if not averted,” Cole said.