WASHINGTON – Congress descended into a situation approaching chaos on Tuesday as House Republican leaders proved incapable of mustering the votes necessary to adopt a proposal to reopen the federal government and stave off default.
The focus now returns to the Senate, which was closing in on a bipartisan deal before Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, recessed high-level talks with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, to provide the lower chamber with an opportunity to offer a solution.
That prospect crashed early Tuesday evening when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was unable to attract enough GOP support to pass a plan that House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, characterized as “reckless.”
The reluctance of some Republican lawmakers to get behind a Boehner plan apparently stems from a threat issued by Heritage Action, a conservative organization tied to the Heritage Foundation think tank, which announced it would take a dim view of anyone who supported the measure.
All this, and more, occurred as the federal government approached an excruciating Oct. 17 deadline. The Treasury Department and the White House have made it clear that Washington is about to bump up against its $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, meaning the government will no longer be authorized to borrow the money necessary to pay its bills. Raising the debt ceiling requires congressional action, which has not occurred.
In addition, the federal government entered the third week of a partial shutdown on Tuesday, brought on because Congress has been unable to approve a temporary spending plan, known as a continuing resolution.
It appeared on Monday night that the Senate was rushing toward an agreement. Both Reid and McConnell expressed optimism that an accommodation could be reached that finally closed the ongoing crisis. The blueprint of the Senate deal funded the government to Jan. 15, authorized the federal government to borrow funds through Feb. 7 and laid the groundwork for negotiations over federal spending and taxation.
In addition, the proposal recommended a few minor changes to the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, the healthcare reform law that launched the ongoing imbroglio. A provision sought by Republicans would establish stronger regulations to assure that those seeking subsidies to buy health insurance, as required under the law, are qualified. In exchange, Democrats would get a delay until 2015 in assessing a tax on health insurance policies that is expected to add about $63 per individual to the cost beginning in January.
But on Tuesday morning Boehner announced that the House – which had failed in prior attempts to resolve the contretemps with the White House – was going to make yet another attempt to end the standoff. The framework for that Boehner proposal opened the federal government and raised the debt ceiling but changed the conditions under consideration by the Senate, adopting instead a two-year repeal of a medical device tax and a provision eliminating the employer healthcare contribution for members of Congress and White House officials.
It quickly became obvious Tuesday morning, however, that Boehner couldn’t attract enough votes to get the package through the lower chamber. Tea Party conservatives within the caucus maintained the effort didn’t wring sufficient concessions from the White House, particularly as they related to Obamacare.