House Republicans said Wednesday that they will push ahead with plans to tie ongoing operations of the government to their demand that the health care law be delayed, setting up a direct challenge with President Obama and the Senate and inching closer to a government shutdown.
All sides say they want to avoid such a shutdown at the end of this month, and to avert the debt crisis that looms soon thereafter — but both have dug in.
Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, bowed to pressure from his party's right wing and said the House will pass a short-term spending deal this week to keep the government open but at the same time block funding for the Affordable Care Act. Soon afterward, the House will tie a one-year debt limit increase to a specific one-year delay of Obamacare.
"There's no interest on our part in shutting the government down," Mr. Boehner said.
The president said those terms amounted to political extortion and that he won't negotiate on his health care law, nor will he engage in deal-making on the debt limit when the nation's credit is at stake.
"You have never seen in the history of the United States the debt ceiling or the threat of not raising the debt ceiling being used to extort a president or a governing party and trying to force issues that have nothing to do with the budget and have nothing to do with the debt," Mr. Obama told corporate executives at a meeting of the Business Roundtable in Washington on Wednesday morning. "I am prepared to work with Democrats and Republicans to deal with our long-term entitlement issues. ... What I will not do is to create a habit, a pattern, whereby the full faith and credit of the United States ends up being a bargaining chip to set policy."
House Republicans think they can pass the spending and debt bills through their chamber, forcing both fights over to the Senate, where Democrats have the majority but where some vocal conservatives have argued that they will not approve a funding bill unless it cancels out the health care law.
Mr. Boehner said the fight to defund the Affordable Care Act has been won in the House, which has voted more than 40 times to delay, repeal or change the law, and said it's time senators face tough votes.
Republican senators are conflicted. A rump group is spoiling for the fight, but their leaders argue that they would be blamed for a government shutdown and that could cost them their chance to win the Senate in elections next year.
Even toying with a government shutdown has put Republicans in hot water.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter warning the House not to risk it.
"It is not in the best interest of the U.S. business community or the American people to risk even a brief government shutdown that might trigger disruptive consequences or raise new policy uncertainties washing over the U.S. economy," chamber President R. Bruce Josten wrote.
The fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and analysts believe the U.S. will hit its debt limit sometime in late October or early November, lending a sense of urgency to the debate if the nation is to avoid a government shutdown, nonpayment of its debts, or both.
Spending fights in the 1990s led to government shutdowns for which congressional Republicans were blamed.
A showdown over the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011 led one credit rating agency to downgrade the U.S.
In that fight, the issues were spending and deficits. This year's impasse is tied to the health care law.
The law's state-based health exchanges are scheduled to open Oct. 1, coinciding with the next fiscal year, and many conservatives say the spending bills are the last, best chance to halt the law before it takes full effect.
Republican leaders have been skeptical, and last week they tried to offer their members a symbolic vote that all sides knew would fail. That sparked a rebellion within the party, so they came up with a two-step strategy.
Democrats urged Republicans to drop their focus on the health law.
"They're obsessed with the constitutional law that's been in effect now for four years — declared constitutional by the United States Supreme Court," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
The spending fight is about more than health care, however.
The House bill would spend less than Democrats want and would leave in place the "sequester" budget cuts that stemmed from the 2011 debt deal.
Republicans are trying to decide where they have the most leverage.
"I like the idea of a fight on the debt ceiling better" than on the budget, said Rep. Todd Rokita, Indiana Republican.
Mr. Rokita said the American public historically associates government shutdowns with the GOP, particularly after the party's fights with President Clinton in the mid-1990s.
This time, Mr. Obama would be more likely to bear the responsibility for upsets in the economy that are tied to the country's debt limit, Mr. Rokita said.
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