WASHINGTON — Unanimous but far from united, the Senate advanced legislation to prevent a partial government shutdown on Wednesday, the 100-0 vote certain to mark merely a brief pause in a fierce partisan struggle over the future of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
The vote came shortly after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz held the Senate in session overnight — and the Twitterverse in his thrall — with a near-22-hour speech that charmed the tea party wing of the GOP, irritated the leadership and was meant to propel fellow Republican lawmakers into an all-out struggle to extinguish the law.
Defying one’s own party leaders is survivable, he declared in pre-dawn remarks on the Senate floor. “Ultimately, it is liberating.”
Legislation passed by the Republican-controlled House last week would cancel all funds for the three-year-old law, preventing its full implementation. But Senate Democrats have enough votes to restore the funds, and Majority Leader Harry Reid labeled Cruz’s turn in the spotlight “a big waste of time.”
Any differences between the two houses’ legislation must be reconciled and the bill signed into law by Tuesday to avert a partial shutdown.
The issue is coming to the forefront in Congress as the Obama administration works to assure a smooth launch for the health care overhaul’s final major piece, a season of enrollment beginning Wednesday for millions who will seek coverage on so-called insurance exchanges.
Health and Human Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters this week that consumers will have an average of 53 plans to choose from, and her department estimated the average individual premium for a benchmark policy known as the “second-lowest cost silver plan” would range from a low of $192 in Minnesota to a high of $516 in Wyoming. Tax credits will bring down the cost for many.
Even with the 100-0 vote, the legislation faces several hurdles that must be overcome as both houses and lawmakers in both parties work to avoid a partial shutdown Tuesday.
The struggle over restoring funds for the health care law is by far the most contentious unresolved issue.
Senate Democrats also want to increase funding for federal firefighting efforts without making offsetting cuts to other programs. The House-passed bill provides $636 million for the program, but includes reductions elsewhere to avoid raising the deficit.
To avoid a partial government shutdown, a single, agreed-upon version must be approved by Congress and signed by Obama by Tuesday.
Officials pointed out that there is still time for the Senate to restore the funds for the health care law — and for the House to seek a more modest overhaul concession, perhaps a one-year delay in the requirement for individuals to purchase coverage or the repeal of a tax on medical devices that many Democrats oppose.
The shutdown issue is a particularly haunting one for Republicans, some of whom were in Congress two decades ago when the GOP suffered politically as the result of a pair of government closures in the winter of 1995-1996.
In a further complication, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told Congress that the Treasury’s ability to borrow funds will be exhausted on Oct. 17, and legislation is needed to renew its authority if the government is to avoid a first-ever default.
The House is expected to approve a measure later this week allowing Treasury to borrow freely for another year, although that legislation, too, will include a provision to carry out the Republican campaign against “Obamacare.”