WASHINGTON — In a break with tea party-aligned Senate conservatives, Republican leader Mitch McConnell announced Monday he will not vote to block legislation aimed at preventing a partial government shutdown, even though Democrats intend to rewrite it to restore funds needed to keep the nation's three-year-old health care law in existence.
Referring to a bill the House passed last week, McConnell's spokesman said the Kentucky lawmaker supports the measure "and will not vote to block it, since it defunds Obamacare and funds the government without increasing spending by a penny."
The spokesman, Don Stewart, added that McConnell will vote against any Democratic attempt to restore funding for the health care law.
The announcement came shortly after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said that anyone who votes to let the bill advance toward final passage will be choosing to allow the Democrats to restore the health care money by majority vote, one they will almost certainly win. "I think that vote disserves our constituents," he said.
With his announcement, McConnell put himself firmly in the camp of Republicans who are adamantly opposed to any partial government shutdown, no matter the other stakes involved.
A short time later, Sen. John Cornyn, like Cruz a Texan, and second ranking in the leadership, also announced he would not seek to block the legislation. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took the same position in comments to reporters. "How can I vote against a bill that I support?" he asked rhetorically.
Democrats control 54 Senate votes, meaning they need six crossover Republicans to assure the spending bill does not fall victim to a filibuster that would doom its prospects. The announcements by McConnell and McCain likely indicate they will have no difficulty in gaining the support they need.
Cruz said last week he was prepared to filibuster any legislation that restores money for the health care law, even if it meant a shutdown. In remarks on the Senate floor during the day, though, he appeared to soften his tone.
"We should not have a government shutdown and we should never, ever, ever even discuss a default on the debt," he said. The House is expected to approve legislation this week that permits the Treasury to borrow freely for a year – preventing a first-ever default – while delaying the health care law for a year.
Earlier in the day, Cruz' battle to deny funding for the nation's three-year-old health care law got off to a shaky start when he first blocked action on unrelated items on the agenda, then quickly backed off.
"There will be time" later in the week to debate the health care issue, he told reporters as he left the Senate floor.
At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., arranged for an initial test vote Wednesday on House passed-legislation that would avoid a partial government shutdown on Oct. 1 while simultaneously canceling funding for the health care law.
A second key vote is set for later in the week as Democrats seek to keep the health care law intact and Cruz and other Republicans resist.
It was unclear why Cruz objected when Reid sought confirmation for four presidential appointees during the day, the kind that are routinely approved without votes in the Senate. Nor did he say why he changed his mind less than an hour later to permit confirmation. The four included two appointments to the Federal Election Commission, one Democrat and one Republican, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and a State Department nominee.
In between, Reid said he has the votes to prevail on the health care issue.
"Any bill that defunds Obama and his health care law is dead on arrival in the Senate," he said.
For its part, the Obama administration spent the day warning of dire consequences unless Congress approves funding beyond the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Medicare beneficiaries could lose their fully-paid annual wellness doctor's visit if funding is cut off, prescription drug costs could rise, and millions of seniors who are enrolled in private Medicare coverage might be required to switch to the traditional fee-for-service coverage to continue receiving health care.
Sebelius also said federal funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program would end on Oct. 1, some Medicaid recipients would lose coverage and Indian health programs would also be affected.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.