WASHINGTON (AFP) – Divided American lawmakers careened Thursday towards a budget deadline that could see the government shut down on October 1, as their leaders sniped over who is to blame.
The debate over how to fund government is once again pushing Congress to the brink, with Democrats and Republicans seemingly unable even to compromise on a stop-gap measure, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to keep federal offices and programs running for even two more months.
Conservative Republicans, who carry sway in the Republican-led House of Representatives, insist they will only vote for a budget deal if it defunds President Barack Obama’s national health care law, parts of which go into effect in October.
House Speaker John Boehner has introduced a CR to fund the government until December 15 at a baseline rate that includes controversial automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, that kicked in earlier this year.
In seeking to appease the right he inserted a measure that calls for defunding of Obamacare.
But conservatives balked, saying it could be easily stripped out of legislation that passes the Democratic-controlled Senate, and Boehner was forced to delay the vote.
Top House and Senate leaders met Thursday to navigate through the impasse, but they sounded somber as they addressed reporters afterward.
“I’m really frightened,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, referring to the prospects of a government shutdown.
“I had to be very candid with him [Boehner], and I told him very directly that all these things they are trying to do on Obamacare are just a waste of their time.”
Reid urged Boehner to break with Republicans backed by the so-called “Tea Party” faction of small government radicals, whom he accused of using “guerrilla tactics” to bring spending to a halt.
“If the Republican leaders keep giving in to the Tea Party and their impossible demands, they must be rooting for a shutdown,” Reid said.
Boehner for his part bristled when a reporter noted there was very little time before the September 30 end of the fiscal year, which could trigger a disastrous government shutdown if no budget is in place for October 1.
“I’m well aware of the deadlines. So are my colleagues,” Boehner said. “I’m going to be continuing to work with my fellow leaders and our members to address those concerns.”
He nevertheless stressed that his caucus would continue to “do everything we can to repeal, dismantle and defund Obamacare.”
Congress returned from its summer break last week expecting to focus its efforts on fiscal issues, including raising the debt ceiling, but the Syria crisis postponed those debates.
With the number of legislative days before October 1 dwindling, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrote members Thursday warning that Congress might have to cancel its upcoming one-week break.