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July 24, 2014

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House votes to delay Obamacare, increasing chances of a shutdown

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., foreground, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. , stand next to a countdown clock indicating three days to go before the federal government is due to run out of money, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, after passing a stopgap spending bill to keep the government running, but stripped of the defund “Obamacare” language, as crafted by House Republicans.

The blame game has already started for the government shutdown that is still two days off – a sure sign that lawmakers fear their continued political competition will drive the government off a budgetary cliff by Tuesday.

But lawmakers are showing no interest in hastening the tit-for-tat votes over Obamacare that brought the federal budget to this brink. Indeed, as the stakes loom higher, legislators of either party seem all the more determined to stick to their guns – and make it as difficult as possible for the other side to squirm away.

“This ends with the speaker not trying to appease the Tea Party faction of his caucus,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev. “All the rest of us are here to work, to reach agreement and are willing to be open to compromise …. but the Tea Party? You cannot compromise with crazy.”

“The House has once again voted to defund the government while delaying and dismantling the flawed health care law,” Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said in a statement. “Once again, it is up to the Senate to act to keep the government open.”

In the early minutes of Sunday morning, the House of Representatives answered several days’ worth of threats from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to delay funding for Obamacare with two amendments. One repeals a proposed tax and the other implements a one-year delay before any of the law's provisions are implemented.

The two amendments are expected to be summarily killed – or tabled, in Senate procedural parlance – when that chamber returns to session Monday. They neatly divided the Nevada delegation along party lines, despite the fact that at least one of the amendments was designed to call the Democrats’ bluff.

The first amendment, which passed the House by a vote of 248 to 174, proposed a repeal of the medical device tax, a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices that is worth about $29 billion over the next 10 years.

It’s a change to the law that most Democrats would actually support outside the context of a continuing resolution battle. And tucked into that amendment was another sweetener for Western representatives: Over $600 million in funding to prevent wildfires – money Nevada’s representatives have been desperate for – and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has openly speculated Republicans would keep from being appropriated.

Both Nevada Democrats resisted the clear temptation and voted no with their party.

“We shouldn’t be playing games with a shutdown or wildfire funds,” said Horsford spokesman Tim Hogan.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said that she would be “open to…the removal of the medical device tax if that were part of a compromise” but counted herself too skeptical that a compromise would actually be reached in time to avoid a shutdown.

A spokesperson for Reid did not respond to a request for comment.

If the first amendment was designed to persuade, than the second House amendment seemed designed to perturb Democrats. House leaders proposed a one-year delay for implementing Obamacare – speculating that there were potentially many Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., who would support slowing down a health care law that was already experiencing serious setbacks, including a one-year delay of the employer mandate to provide health insurance.

But Republican leaders attached a so-called “conscience clause” to the bill that re-inserted a provision from an old health care fight that would allow insurers to opt out of covering contraception.

The addition coalesced Democratic opposition: All but two conservative Democrats voted against the amendment.

The package of amendments – along with a universally acceptable companion measure explicating that the troops would be funded through a government shutdown – now heads to the Senate, where Harry Reid has warned House Republicans that the move they just made will make it impossible for the Senate, procedurally, to meet the shutdown deadline by midnight on Monday, and that the responsibility for such an end will rest on Republican shoulders.

“Senate Democrats have shown that we are willing to debate and vote on a wide range of issues…but the American people will not be extorted by Tea Party anarchists,” Reid said in a statement earlier Saturday.

There is, however, potentially an out. If Reid quickly holds a vote to table the two offending House amendments on Monday, there may still be time to kick the remaining, underlying budget bill back to the House for final approval before the last minutes of Monday wind down.

But pulling off such a coordinated maneuver depends on the House’s willingness to ultimately allow a budget bill that does not take at least some principled stand against Obamacare to pass Congress – be it a delay of the law or a repeal of the medical device tax. There was even talk late Saturday of the Vitter amendment, which would take away the subsidies members of Congress and their staffers receive to buy health care, making a comeback.

Right now, Republican sentiments are not too sympathetic to idea of passing a bill that does not try to dismantle Obamacare at least in part ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline.

“The reason that it has become so important at this period in time is (Obamacare)’s getting ready to launch,” said Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., referencing the Oct. 1 date when health care exchanges go into effect. “Once it gets going, you’ll never get rid of it.”

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