WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Friday approved a government-funding bill stripped of a Republican-backed provision to block money for President Obama’s healthcare law, sending the bill back to the GOP-led House with just days left before a possible government shutdown.
As expected, the bill to continue existing levels of federal spending through Nov. 15 passed, 54-44, along party lines. Before that, the Senate voted, 54-44, to remove the measure that would have eliminated funding for the Affordable Care Act.
The key vote came more than an hour earlier. Twenty-five Senate Republicans joined with the Democratic majority, voting, 79-19, to end a filibuster on the bill. The motion required 60 votes to pass.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had argued that a vote against the motion represented a final opportunity kill the healthcare law. Only 18 of the chamber’s 45 other Republicans joined him.
In a final floor speech before that vote, Cruz all but conceded defeat, acknowledging “Republican division on this issue.” But he insisted that the fight against Obamacare, as the legislation is commonly known, wasn’t over.
Noting that the House will send the bill back, he said, “I very much hope the next time this issue’s before this body in a few days, that all 46 Republicans are united against Obamacare and standing with the American people, that we listen to the American people the way Senate Democrats are not.”
Several of the House’s more conservative members joined Cruz on the Senate floor during the vote. Cruz has met this week with House Republicans to plot strategy ahead of House consideration of the Senate’s version of the spending bill.
The House will be in session this weekend for possible votes on the spending bill. If lawmakers there were to vote simply to approve the Senate version, a government shutdown would be averted with days to spare.
But Republican leadership there is under pressure to add new provisions that would undermine the healthcare law -- perhaps to repeal a tax on medical devices or pass a one-year delay of the requirement that individuals have health insurance -- and might have a chance of being passed in the Senate.
House GOP leaders have not yet indicated how they will respond to the Senate action after earlier strategies unraveled, and no immediate action on the spending measure was scheduled for Friday.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) assembled his leadership team Friday morning to consider alternatives that will be presented to lawmakers on Saturday.
“We’re reviewing our options,” Boehner’s spokesman said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said the House should simply pass the Senate bill.
“They can't even negotiate with themselves,” she told reporters. “What they say in the morning doesn't exist in the evening."
If Congress fails to settle on a plan by midnight Monday, the federal government will see its first shutdown in nearly two decades.
Republicans who lined up against Cruz’s strategy explained that they were simply voting to move forward on a budget measure they supported. "I don't understand how I can otherwise vote on a matter that I want to see passed," said Sen. John Cornyn, the chamber's No. 2 Republican and Cruz’s Texas colleague.
“There are some people across America that are so upset with Obamacare -- and I understand their frustration -- that say we ought to shut down the federal government,” Cornyn said. “It won’t work.”
Furthermore, those Republicans also said acting quickly to return the bill to the House served the cause of undermining the law, because the GOP majority there would have time to attach amendments putting curbs on Obama's landmark healthcare legislation that might win approval in the Senate.
Cruz, in a more than 21-hour filibuster-like speech, interviews and more floor speeches, had insisted that the vote to move ahead on the bill was tantamount to a vote to sustain the healthcare law. If Republicans were united, he argued, the onus would be on Democrats to choose between the unpopular law and a government shutdown.
In an email sent Friday to supporters, Obama said the economy was being put at risk by “a group of far-right Republicans in Congress.”
“They refuse to pass a budget unless I let them sabotage Obamacare, something they know is not going to happen. Now, we’re left with only four days before a government shutdown,” he wrote. “This is reckless and irresponsible. Republicans are not focused on what’s best for you. They’re playing political games.”
The GOP’s divisions over Cruz's strategy have largely played out behind closed doors, but they spilled into the open Thursday during a rare intraparty debate on the Senate floor. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Cruz and his conservative ally, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, were more interested in generating publicity for themselves than supporting an effort to quickly send the bill back to the House.
On Friday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the battle is “very dysfunctional.”
"We are dividing the Republican Party," he said in an interview on CBS’ “This Morning.” “Rather than attacking Democrats and maybe trying to persuade those five or six Democrats who are in states that are leaning Republican, we are now launching attacks against Republicans funded by commercials that Senator Lee and Senator Cruz appear in."
Twitter: @MikeMemoliCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun