WASHINGTON — A revolt by tea party conservatives forced House GOP leaders on Wednesday to delay a vote on a temporary spending bill required to prevent a government shutdown next month.
GOP leaders pulled the measure from the House schedule after initial vote counts showed them running into opposition from several dozen staunch conservatives who think the leadership is not fighting hard enough to block implementation of President Barack Obama's health care law.
The conservatives are unhappy with a plan by GOP leaders to advance the measure through the House coupled with a provision to derail implementation of the new health care law but allow the Democratic Senate to send it on to the White House shorn of the "defund `Obamacare'" provision so long as there is a vote on it.
The plan by top Republicans like Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia is designed to keep government agencies running through Dec. 15. Cantor's office announced the delay.
The GOP leadership-sponsored strategy features an unusual twist: The measure would pass the House as a single bill but would be decoupled when presented to the Senate, a trick designed to permit the Democratic-led chamber to advance the must-do funding measure to the president as a "clean" bill that's free of the assault on Obama's signature health care law.
The complicated plan landed with a thud among many tea party conservatives seeking to use the must-pass funding bill to spark a last-ditch battle with Democrats and Obama on the health care law. Health insurance exchanges are slated to begin functioning on Oct. 1.
"We've got a large number of folks in our conference who have said they need the vote to happen this way," Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga. "The leadership tried to craft a solution that meets those needs. We may be finding out that we didn't come as close to meeting those needs as folks would have liked."
"I'm not impressed," said Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas.
Republican leaders are worried that if they can't find a way out of their dilemma they could stumble into the first partial government shutdown since the 1995-96 debacle that translated into a big win for then-President Bill Clinton. Essential services like the military, air traffic control and the Border Patrol would remain open in any shutdown, but national parks would close and many civilian federal workers would be sent home.
The protests by conservatives have thus far left House leaders short of the votes required to pass the measure and forced the delay into next week. It's unclear whether it can be revived or whether GOP leaders will have to come up with another plan to avoid a government shutdown after the 2013 budget year ends Sept. 30.
GOP aides requiring anonymity to discuss internal strategy said Republican leaders were making progress in assembling the 217 votes that would pass the measure through the House. Last year's elections narrowed the Republican margin of control in the House, and GOP leaders can't afford more than 16 defections, assuming no Democrats vote with them. One key GOP aide said 30 to 40 Republicans were most adamant in opposing the plan and were proving difficult to budge.
"We just have to walk them through and instead of overly rush, let's do it next week," GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy of California said.
Democrats oppose the measure over its assault on Obama's health care law. Many of them are doubly opposed because the GOP measure embraces spending levels consistent with automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California said the GOP turmoil is "yet another sign that Republicans can't get their own act together, even when a government shutdown hangs in the balance."
The drive to strip away money aimed at implementing Obama's health care law has been a priority of grassroots conservative activists. And GOP lawmakers heard an earful from their constituents over the just-completed congressional recess on this issue. Groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action said they will use the vote on the scorecards by which they measure whether Republicans are sufficiently conservative.
Passing temporary spending bills known as continuing resolutions is usually routine but passage this year's "CR" is complicated by its proximity to the start date for Obamacare. Conservatives want to send the legislation to block the health care law as part of a must-pass measure like the stopgap funding bill, which needs to be passed by the Democratic-led Senate and signed by the president if it is to become law.
More pragmatic Republicans see political risks to the demand by conservatives to defund Obama's health care program as a condition for keeping the government open. They note that if GOP leaders went along with tea party demands to send the stopgap spending bill and the Obamacare provision to the Senate as one measure, Democrats could simply peel the provision off of the funding bill and send it back to the House.
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