Senate Readies for Spending Showdown

BY Terence Burlij  September 24, 2013 at 9:02 AM EST

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “Any bill that defunds Obama and his health care law is dead on arrival in the Senate.” Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The bell rang Monday in the opening round of the Senate’s fight over government funding, with Majority Leader (and one-time amateur boxer) Harry Reid in one corner, and freshman Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the other.

Reid kicked off the political face-off by tearing into the strategy pushed by Cruz and other conservative lawmakers to tie government financing to the elimination of funding for President Barack Obama’s health care reform law.

The Morning Line“The ransom demanded by House Republicans in exchange for keeping the government open is unworkable and unrealistic,” Reid said, adding that any bill that defunds the health care law is “dead on arrival” in his chamber.

The Nevada Democrat said his party would “not bow to Tea Party anarchists.” And he suggested the GOP would be held responsible for any damage to the economy caused by a shutdown. “America will know exactly who to blame: Republican fanatics in the House and Senate.”

When it came time for Cruz to speak, he asked Reid to require a 60-vote threshold on an amendment to remove the defunding language from the House bill instead of the usual simple majority requirement. Reid said he did not question Cruz’s “sincerity,” but rejected the request.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the Majority Leader chose to object to continuing government, to preventing a shutdown, to taking a default off the table,” Cruz said. “But I do think it is clarifying to make clear, as the Majority Leader just did, that he is willing to risk a government shutdown, he is willing to force, even, a government shutdown in order to insist that Obamacare is funded.”

Cruz then called on his Republican colleagues to block the House bill from moving forward, insisting that voting to take up the measure was essentially giving Reid the go-ahead to strip out the defunding provision with only Democratic votes.

“We all know that three and a-half years ago Obamacare was forced into law on a strict party-line vote, by straight brute force. But it shouldn’t be funded that way. That’s not the way a government should proceed,” Cruz said. “Any member of this body that votes for cloture on this bill will be voting to allow the Majority Leader to fund Obamacare with 51 votes. I think that vote is a mistake.”

As the Texas lawmaker was making his case, reports soon emerged that he did not have the support of the two top Republicans in the Senate: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn, a fellow Texan.

“Sen. McConnell supports the House Republicans’ bill and will not vote to block it, since it defunds Obamacare and funds the government without increasing spending by a penny,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell. “He will also vote against any amendment that attempts to add Obamacare funding back into the House Republicans’ bill.”

Cornyn announced via Twitter that he will also back the House proposal.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board joined in as well on Tuesday, criticizing the way Cruz has orchestrated the defunding campaign:

When Mr. Cruz demands that House Republicans “hold firm,” he means they should keep trying to defund ObamaCare even if it results in a shutdown that President Obama will blame on Republicans. It’s nice of him to volunteer House Republicans for duty. The supposedly intrepid General Cruz can view the battle from the comfort of HQ while the enlisted troops take any casualties.

The Washington Post’s Paul Kane examines Cruz’s approach since arriving in the Senate back in January, noting that the Texan’s style has endeared him to colleagues on either side of the aisle:

His burgeoning fame among the grass roots of his party has not translated into anything resembling success inside the tradition-bound and clubby Senate, where even in today’s highly partisan atmosphere lawmakers usually begin their rejoinders by referring to a political enemy as the “distinguished gentleman.”

For all his success as an agitator of outside forces, Cruz has not set about trying to court Senate allies he will need to advance his agenda. During almost every roll call, he can be found in the far right corner of the chamber, with just his close friend and ideological compatriot Mike Lee (R-Utah).

And Roll Call’s Meredith Shiner reports Cruz “has not been engaged in his role as vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.” Shiner writes that sources close to GOP politics are “frustrated” about Cruz’s work on the Senate Conservatives Fund:

But his position with the NRSC as vice chairman for grass-roots outreach — which these sources said never was clearly defined in the first place — seems in tension with his work with the SCF. And his lack of involvement at the NRSC raises the question of why he would want to be affiliated with the group at all.

“The vice chairman of the NRSC is actively raising money for an organization going after Republican senators,” one GOP aide bluntly observed.

A pair of new polls, meanwhile, show the potential political costs associated with the defunding effort.

A CNBC survey found that nearly 60 percent of Americans said they oppose defunding the health care law if it means shutting down the government. The poll also showed that 44 percent of Americans, in general, oppose stripping money for the law, while 38 percent support such action.

Another survey from the Pew Research Center revealed that blame for a government shutdown would be spread evenly, with 39 percent of Americans choosing Republicans, 36 percent faulting the Obama administration, and 17 percent saying both sides would be equally responsible.

The Pew poll also found that 57 percent of Americans said they would prefer officials compromised to reach a budget deal, while 33 percent said they wanted lawmakers to stand by their principles even if it meant a shutdown. But among those who identified as tea party supporters, 71 percent wanted lawmakers to stand by their principles, with only 20 percent advocating compromise.

What path Congressional leaders will choose remains to be seen.

Reid plans to move forward with a test vote on Wednesday, with the aim of final passage by the weekend, possibly as late as Sunday. That would give House Republicans little time to implement any changes to the plan before government funding runs out next Monday. (There are a bunch of good, though speculative, stories out Tuesday about what a shutdown could mean.)

“Once the Senate has acted, House Republicans will face a choice whether to pass a clean continuing resolution or shut down the federal government,” Reid said Monday.

The White House is also attempting to ramp up pressure on Congressional Republicans, activating the administration’s official email list and blasting out a message under the subject line “Speaker Boehner has a choice to make.”

“[I]nstead of doing their jobs, a few reckless Republicans in Congress are so obsessed with refighting old political battles over Obamacare that they’re threatening to shut down the government and stop paying the country’s bills,” wrote Dan Pfeiffer, one of the president’s top aides.

“Unfortunately, we’ve watched them run this play before, and we know what it looks like. Two years ago, these Republicans held the economy hostage, and as a result our credit rating was downgraded, the stock market plummeted 17 percent, consumer confidence dropped like a rock, and businesses stopped hiring,” Pfeiffer wrote. He then called on people to “spread the word so that Americans know what’s going on, so forward this message to your friends and family.”

BILL AND BARACK

Mr. Obama will sit down late Tuesday for an hour with former President Bill Clinton during his Clinton Global Initiative to discuss the health care law, one week before the marketplace of insurance exchanges central to the law kick in. The White House notes that Monday marked the 20th anniversary of Mr. Clinton’s speech to Congress about health care, and are billing it as the continuation of a partnership.

And it’s also part of a rollout that administration officials dubbed “aggressive” as they work on raising public awareness about the law. Mr. Obama will speak Thursday in Maryland and both First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will take to the hustings as well.

Judy Woodruff met with Mr. Clinton in New York Monday as CGI began. The two discussed health care and the political difficulties facing the president. Mr. Clinton said the popularity of Obamacare won’t change until people see it working. The former president told her:

We also know that, for all of the attacks on health care, it is less unpopular than President Bush’s Medicare drug program was when it started. And there were horrible problems with the implementation.

The Democrats didn’t try to repeal it, even though most of them voted against it. Instead, they tried to make it work. That’s what you do with a law. We tried to help. So the members of Congress should be doing what the Democrats who voted against the drug program did. They should be telling their citizens how it works and how to make the most of it. And that’s what the administration should do. And that’s what we’re going to try to do.

I mean, my library is going to help people enroll in Arkansas. That’s what everybody should do. It’s the law.

They also chatted about foreign affairs, gun control and Hillary Clinton’s political future. The former president insisted, “[W]e’re not nearly as political as everyone thinks we are. We don’t sit around all the time talking about this.”

Clinton said he and his wife “swim in the late afternoon every day. And if either one of us even mentions a political topic we will stop the other one and just talk about the weather or whatever.”

Skepticism on that claim aside, the former president said he advises his wife to “get healthy, write your book, do your charitable work.” He lamented the long and early presidential campaign season and said that Mrs. Clinton “doesn’t have to declare now or in three months or six months.”

Watch Mr. Clinton talk about his wife here or below:

And watch the interview in full here or below:

LINE ITEMS

  • Two new surveys of Virginia voters ahead of the November gubernatorial contest and a Wednesday debate found Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe leading Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. A Washington Post poll showed McAuliffe ahead of Cuccinelli 47 percent to 39 percent among likely voters, with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis’s 10 percent “suggesting an unrest among voters not satisfied with either major-party contender.” With just the two in the mix, McAuliffe led 49 to 44 percent. An NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll had McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli 43 percent to 38 percent. And in this post, Republican operative Matt Mackowiak explains the strategy behind a new anti-McAuliffe super PAC.

  • Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski scoops that Senate staffers have been told to wait to enroll in Obamacare exchanges.

  • Politico’s Seung Min Kim and Jonathan Allen report that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is aiming to introduce legislation combining the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in May with a bipartisan border-security bill from the House Homeland Security Committee. They write that she revealed the strategy last week at a meeting with advocates, and intends to time the bill to the Oct. 5 National Day of Action on immigration. The idea is that “combining those two measures would create a bill that could rally support from as many lawmakers in the House as possible.”

  • The Boston Globe previews Tuesday’s mayoral primary as 12 candidate vie for the two party nods.

  • Lois Lerner, the official at the center of the IRS scandal involving the agency’s scrutiny of conservatives groups, retired effective Monday. The former head of the agency’s tax exempt organizations had been placed on administrative leave earlier this year after the practices came to light.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. withdrew support for a gay, black Miami judge, questioning Judge William Thomas’ “fitness” to serve on the federal bench at the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

  • The New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman and Jeremy Peters take note of McConnell’s decision to keep out of the recent budget fight.

  • Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Max Baucus of Montana sent this “Dear Colleague” letter supporting the president’s position on the debt ceiling fight. Republicans have been using Bacucus’ criticism of the health care law as ammunition in their arguments against Obamacare.

  • Mr. Biden toured devastation from the floods in Colorado on Monday.

  • The president endorsed Democrat Bill de Blasio in the New York City mayor’s race on Monday.

  • Get ready for a re-match (again) in New Hampshire’s 1st congressional district, as former GOP Rep. Frank Guinta jumps in the game.

  • Salon’s Brian Beutler talks about how he used his health insurance when he was shot and notes that it saved him from bankruptcy.

  • Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis announced Monday that he was stepping down after nearly seven years on the job. Davis has been offered a fellowship at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, but he is also rumored to be a candidate to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

  • “The modern Supreme Court opinion is increasingly built on sand,” Adam Liptak of the New York Times writes, citing the hundreds of times justices’ opinions link to online sites that no longer work.

  • Vandals bent a stone monument of the Ten Commandments near the U.S. Supreme Court building so that the words on the tablets face the ground. They also left a “For Rent” yard sign near the monument, the Associated Press reported Monday.

  • Ever want to fly using a jet pack? Such a thing actually exists.

  • The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., has plans to move into the Carnegie LIbrary in Mount Vernon Square by 2017.

  • Former President George W. Bush defended Mr. Obama against critics who contend the 44th president spends too much time on the golf course. “I think it’s good for the president to be out playing golf,” Mr. Bush said in an interview with the Golf Channel’s Jimmy Roberts.

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Katelyn Polantz and Simone Pathe contributed to this report.

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