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Senate Set to OK Budget Bill, but Obamacare, Shutdown Fight Not Over



(AP) A potential government shutdown hurtling ever closer, the Democratic-led Senate is ready to approve legislation keeping federal agencies from locking their doors on Tuesday. But disputes with the Republican-run House and among GOP lawmakers themselves ensure that the battle will spill into the weekend at least, and quite possibly beyond.

 

Obama's no-negotiation stance setting new tone

This time, President Barack Obama says, he's not budging. This is the confrontational Obama, the "Make my day" president, betting Republicans blink to avoid a government shutdown or a first-ever default of the nation's debts.

It's a proposition not without risk and one with a history of last-minute accommodations on both sides. Brinkmanship between Obama and congressional Republicans has often stopped at the precipice's edge.

In this round, however, the president and his aides maintain that when it comes to raising the government's borrowing authority and meeting its debt obligations, there's no bargaining.

"The entire world looks to us to make sure that the world economy is stable. You don't mess with that," Obama said Thursday. "And that's why I will not negotiate on anything when it comes to the full faith and credit of the United States of America."

Still, House Speaker John Boehner says a debt hike must be linked to budget cuts and other programmatic changes.

"The president says, `I'm not going to negotiate,'" Boehner said. "Well, I'm sorry, but it just doesn't work that way."

Obama's stance is rooted in experience, politics and a desire to protect himself from similar demands in the remaining three years of his presidency.

Obama advisers note that past negotiations have not yielded grand bargains and that the mere threat of default in 2011 rattled the economy, causing a downgrade in U.S. credit. Talks earlier this year to avoid automatic spending cuts known as sequestration also failed.

Obama aides also note that Boehner himself eight months ago declared an end to negotiations with Obama, favoring the regular legislative process instead.

That process has proved messy for the GOP and senior White House aides insist that in a standoff, Republicans will be perceived as the unreasonable party. And the White House is convinced any concession would place the president in the position of having to bargain again and again when the next debt ceiling looms.

"Every poll I've seen suggests that while no one escapes cleanly from a shutdown, the GOP would bear the brunt," former senior White House counselor and Obama adviser David Axelrod said. "The bigger danger for the president is to put himself in a position to be constantly held hostage. First they want an arm. Then they want a leg. It's unsustainable."

The likelihood of a shutdown Oct. 1 and the threat of a credit default in the ensuing weeks have mounted as conservative Republicans push to use a stopgap spending bill and an increase in the debt ceiling as leverage against Obama's 3-year-old health care law.

House Republican leaders, meanwhile, want to attach other provisions to the debt ceiling, including approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and provisions blocking pollution regulations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday demanded the GOP-controlled House simply send the Senate unencumbered spending and debt ceiling bills.

"There's no need for conversations," Reid said. "We've spoken loudly and clearly, and we have the support of the president of the United States. And that's pretty good."

The Pew Research Center, however, found nearly 6 out of 10 Americans want politicians they side with to be more willing to engage in talks. And the public split about evenly in the Pew poll on who would be responsible if the government shut down, with 39 percent blaming Republicans and 36 percent Obama and much of the rest blaming both.

"The president may not be playing this just for this set and this match," said Patrick Griffin, the White House legislative director under President Bill Clinton. "As his tenure goes on and his legacy looms larger, he might not be as poll sensitive as he might be otherwise."

White House aides say Obama is still willing to negotiate over a long-term spending deal, just not as part of raising the debt ceiling. But the opportunity for that could be short-lived, too. The Senate version of the short-term spending bill would set up another possible government shutdown as soon as Nov. 16.

What's more, lines in the sand have blurred before.

Obama ran for re-election vowing to increase taxes on individuals making more than $200,000. Republicans insisted they would not raise taxes at all. In the end, both settled on a hike on incomes above $400,000. Most recently, Obama altered course on Syria, at first determined to launch missile strikes against its regime, then seeking congressional support before taking a diplomatic path aimed at destroying Syria's chemical stockpile.

The White House also sees the current showdown as an opportunity to cast the Republican Party in the image of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a leader in the effort to kill Obama's health care law.

The result: a high-stakes showdown that is playing out in a climate of chaos, infighting and unpredictability that is extraordinary even by congressional standards.

The Senate planned votes Friday on the measure preventing a shutdown. Senators were expected to pass it after derailing a conservative effort to block the bill and after removing House-approved language that strips money from President Barack Obama's health care law.

That would bounce the legislation back to the House, where GOP leaders already have declared that the pared-down Senate bill was insufficient.

With conservatives insisting that the shutdown bill and a separate debt limit measure present an opportunity to demolish the Affordable Care Act and slash spending, House leaders were not saying what, if any, decisions they had made on strategy.

No votes on the budget bill were expected in the House until at least the weekend. The Senate measure would allow hundreds of thousands of employees at dozens of agencies to continue working, while shielding lawmakers from public scorn.

GOP disunity over what to include in the debt limit measure forced leaders to indefinitely delay that legislation, which is aimed at preventing a damaging, first-ever federal default that the Obama administration has warned could otherwise occur by Oct. 17.

At one point Thursday, GOP divisions burst into full view on the Senate floor as a pair of conservatives, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, forced the Senate to wait until Friday to approve its bill preventing a shutdown.

"The American people are watching this" but expected the vote Friday or Saturday, said Lee, who asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to not hold the roll call on Thursday.

Reid accused the conservatives of "a big, big stall."

He said he wanted to return the Senate bill to the House as quickly as possible to give GOP leaders there more time to send back an amended bill and avoid a shutdown.

Lee's request also prompted Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to engage in an icy exchange with Cruz in which Corker accused the two conservatives of seeking a delay because they had emailed their supporters to watch debate on the legislation on Friday.

"My two colleagues, who I respect, have sent out emails around the world and turned this into a show," Corker said, barely masking his disdain. "And that is taking priority over getting legislation back to the House so they can take action before the country's government shuts down."

Just a day earlier, Cruz, a possible 2016 presidential contender, ended a 21-hour speech urging lawmakers to block the Senate bill before Reid amends it to drop the language defunding Obama's 2010 health care law.

That talkathon, and Cruz's strategy, has garnered widespread praise from supporters around the country and become a focus of fundraising appeals by conservative groups.

"We are not going to be complicit in giving Harry Reid the ability to fund Obamacare," Cruz said Thursday.

But Cruz and Lee's effort has earned derision from many GOP colleagues, who see it as a ploy that is doomed and increases the odds of legislative delays that threaten a shutdown. Most Republicans want to avoid a shutdown, fearing blame from voters.

Asked Thursday whether he envisions the House approving a simple Senate-passed bill keeping the government open, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters, "I don't see that happening." GOP lawmakers said he signaled the same thing at a closed-door meeting Thursday.

They said the House might insert provisions into the shutdown bill repealing an unpopular tax on medical devices that helps pay for Obama's health care overhaul, or erasing federal subsidies for Congress' own health care coverage. They could then dare the Senate to reject the overall measure - and face the fallout from the government shutdown that would result.

But lawmakers and GOP aides cautioned that no decisions had been made, in part because it was unclear whether even those provisions would help win enough votes for House passage.

The debt limit bill was even more complicated and potentially dangerous. Many analysts think even the serious threat of a federal default would jar the economy - for which neither party would relish being blamed.

In an attempt to build support, House GOP leaders considered adding a stack of provisions.

A one-year delay of "Obamacare," expedited congressional work on tax reform and clearing hurdles to the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas were considered certainties. Other possibilities included boosts in Medicare costs for higher earners, land transfers in California and Oregon, and repealing Federal Communications Commission restraints on Internet providers' ability to control available content.

Even so, many conservatives said the debt limit bill lacked sufficient spending cuts.

"It definitely has a lot of goodies in it, things that arguably would grow the economy and arguably would generate more revenue," said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. "But still you have to address the spending problem."


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