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Congress in ‘Political Staring Contest’ Over Budget in Countdown to Shutdown

September 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Senate voted along party lines to fund the government into November after Democrats removed language defunding Obamacare. Kwame Holman reports on that measure's return to the House, where GOP leaders hope to find a plan tea party conservatives will support. Judy Woodruff gets an update from The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead story tonight: Washington headed into the final weekend before a potential government shutdown with the outcome still in doubt. The Senate adopted a stopgap spending bill to keep the government running past Monday, but the battle over health care reform showed no signs of abating.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

MAN: Lord, deliver us from governing by crisis.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate chaplain’s appeal for divine guidance came on a day when partisan divisions were on full display. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin accused Republicans of throwing a temper tantrum by demanding to strike funds for the president’s health care law.

SEN. TOM HARKIN, D-Iowa: Nullification of a law through that type of action, that’s sort of like picking up your marbles and going home. But, when you’re a kid, not too many — no one really gets hurt. But who gets hurt from this? The American people.

KWAME HOLMAN: Utah Republican Mike Lee, a lead proponent of the defunding effort, insisted conservatives are the ones listening to the public.

SEN. MIKE LEE, R-Utah: The people who elect us do expect us to do what we say we’re going to do, not sometimes, not just when it is convenient. In fact, they expect us to do what we say we’re going to do especially when it’s inconvenient.

MAN: The bill, as amended, is passed.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate ultimately voted 54-44, along a straight party line, to fund government operations into mid-November, after Democrats removed the Obamacare defunding language.

The measure now heads back to the House, where Republican leaders hope to find a plan Tea Party conservatives will support. Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz said he wants them to stand firm and reject any bill that leaves Obamacare intact.

SEN. TED CRUZ, R-Texas: When that happens, the bill is going to come back here. And it’s going to be an opportunity; it’s going to be an opportunity for Senate Republicans to come together, for Senate Republicans to come home. I very much hope, when the House bill comes back, that all 46 Republicans stand together.

KWAME HOLMAN: At the White House this afternoon, President Obama delivered a very different message.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If Republicans have specific ideas on how to genuinely improve the law, rather than gut it, rather than delay it, rather than repeal it, I’m happy to work with them on that through the normal democratic processes. But that will not happen under the threat of a shutdown.

KWAME HOLMAN: The House is expected to begin work on the Senate’s revised government spending bill tomorrow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the latest, we turn to reporter Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post. He joins us from Capitol Hill.

Well, Ed, what a scene you’re watching over there. Tell us, what happens now?

ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: Well, at this point, we know that House Republicans are planning to meet at about noon on Saturday to consider their next options.

Just before we came on the air tonight, there was a possible proposal unveiled by about 62 House Republicans that would, instead of completely defunding the new health care law, just delay it until the beginning of 2015. This is now seen as the new leading conservative proposal, one that Republicans can get behind.

When I asked one of the lead sponsors what about the fact that the shutdown begins on Tuesday and that the House and Senate might not be able to get something done by then, they said, no, we still think there’s plenty of time and it can be done. But, in reality, Senate procedure can take some time. And if the House does indeed pass something this weekend and send it back to the Senate, there aren’t necessarily enough hours in the day to ensure that something gets passed by midnight at the beginning of Tuesday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, knowing that, does that say that these conservatives in the House are prepared for the government to shut down?

ED O’KEEFE: You know, it doesn’t seem anyone is totally realizing yet that this is very likely. There were Senate leaders today sort of certainly suggesting that.

But House Republicans at least seem to believe that there’s still enough time, and whether that’s a lack of understanding of congressional procedure or just this belief that, for some reason, the Democratic-controlled Senate will suddenly capitulate and agree to something they have already said they don’t like, we will just have to wait and see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, that’s my question. Do they believe that the Senate is going to change its mind and go against what it’s been saying, the majority in the Senate has been saying for days, or that the president is going to change his mind? They must assume that’s not going to happen. So what’s the — what’s the strategy beyond that?

ED O’KEEFE: At this point, you know, it is essentially a political staring contest, and neither side is prepared to blink.

And I think, you know, we will just have to wait and see whether perhaps tomorrow House Republican leaders, the speaker, John Boehner, and his lieutenants can sort of explain to their conference that at this point perhaps it makes more sense to just pass a simple extension of government funding and wait until a later day to continue having this fight over the health care law or whether they will be compelled by their rank and file to push ahead with this strategy and essentially plunge the government into a shutdown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, well, that’s the question, finally, Ed. Is there a sense that Speaker Boehner feels that he must keep those conservatives on board, no matter what happens, going forward?

ED O’KEEFE: He does. He has maintained that strategy throughout. While Democrats today said they would be willing to work with at least some Republicans to pass a short-term extension of government funding, the speaker knows that, for his own political future and for the future of cohesiveness of House Republicans, that it makes more sense to continue working with those conservatives and try to find a solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post, we thank you.

ED O’KEEFE: Great to be with you.