Washington (AFP) – With the clock ticking toward a possible government shutdown, the Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to advance a stopgap spending bill that would avoid federal closures.
The 100-0 vote masks deep divisions within Congress over what course to take in the next five days to thrash out a temporary measure that funds government operations beyond Monday, the final day of the current fiscal year.
The Senate now begins debate on a measure, originally passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives, that funds government at current levels through December 15, but which also strips President Barack Obama’s three-year-old health care law of all its funding.
The Senate’s Democratic majority leader Harry Reid has vowed to strip the bill of the health care provision, insisting that no legislation that defunds so-called “Obamacare” will pass his chamber.
Reid said he will also amend the budget bill to fund government until November 15 instead of mid-December.
The Senate is on track to pass its legislation by “sometime on Sunday,” Reid said, leaving the House 48 hours or less to either pass the amended bill or send a re-worked counteroffer back to the Senate.
“I would hope we can expedite this,” Reid said, referring to possible agreement by Republicans to compress the time needed before the next procedural vote. “We have a lot to do and I hope we can get there as quickly as we can.”
If no spending agreement is reached, government agencies would begin shutting their doors Tuesday, and hundreds of thousands of federal workers would be ordered to stay home with no pay.
But in a sign of the divisive nature of the debate, conservative Senator Ted Cruz took to the Senate floor beginning Tuesday for an extraordinary, 21-hour speech railing against Obamacare as “the biggest job killer in this country.
“The American people want to stop this madness, and so do I,” Cruz said.
Many Republicans have expressed opposition to the strategy, warning it could backfire and not leave the House enough time to consider the Senate measure.
If government were forced into shutdown, they said, Republicans would be blamed for the debacle and it would hurt the party’s standing in next year’s congressional elections.
Even though all senators including Cruz voted to advance the bill, Republican lawmakers remained universally opposed to Obamacare, with some insisting it was game on in the fight to defund it.
“This is just the beginning,” vowed Senator Jeff Sessions. “We will not allow this country to socialize medicine.”
But Democrats sternly warned that including such a fight in the budget negotiations was flirting with disaster.
“They’re going to take us right to the brink,” a steaming Senator Dick Durbin said.
The White House weighed in as well, with spokesman Jay Carney saying “it would be irresponsible to not fund the essential functions of the government out of ideological pique.”
As lawmakers squabble over the way forward, a second fiscal crisis was rapidly approaching: the need to raise the U.S. debt ceiling or risk a catastrophic credit default.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned that the government will reach its statutory debt cap by October 17.
“If we have insufficient cash on hand, it would be impossible for the United States of America to meet all of its obligations for the first time in our history,” Lew said in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner.
Lew urged Congress to “act immediately” and increase the borrowing ceiling, which has been locked at $16.7 trillion since May.
But some Republicans have suggested they will use the debt ceiling debate as the next Obamacare battle front, saying the House could pass a measure this week that raises the debt ceiling but delays key elements of the health law.
During a crippling 2011 budget battle, the issue of raising the debt ceiling was wrapped into the budget fight, and many worry the same could happen again in a fresh bout of brinksmanship that could rock markets.
Lew reminded lawmakers that the 2011 impasse “caused significant harm to the economy.”
That fight was resolved just hours before the country could have defaulted on its debt, but nevertheless led to a historic downgrade of the U.S. credit rating, the first time the United States has ever lost its AAA status with Standard & Poor’s.