WASHINGTON — Moving closer to the brink of a government shutdown, House Republicans vowed Thursday they won't simply accept the stopgap legislation that is likely to remain after Senate Democrats strip away a plan to dismantle President Barack Obama's health care law.
A sense of confusion settled over the House, both over how to avoid a shutdown and how to handle even more important legislation to increase the government's borrowing ability to avert a default on U.S. obligations. Short of votes, House leaders shelved a vote that had been expected this weekend on the debt limit measure and gave frustrated GOP lawmakers few clues about what they plan to do to avoid a shutdown.
The chaos sets the stage for weekend drama on Capitol Hill, with the Senate planning to send the fractious House a straightforward bill Friday to keep the government operating through Nov. 15 rather than partly closing down at midnight Monday.
Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and several rank-and-file Republicans said the House simply won't accept a "clean" spending measure, even though that's been the norm in Congress on dozens of occasions since the 1995-96 government closures that bruised Republicans and strengthened the hand of Democratic President Bill Clinton.
"I don't see that happening," Boehner said. Still, he declared that "I have no interest in a government shutdown" and he doesn't expect one to occur on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the Democratic-led chamber will not relent.
"The Senate will never pass a bill that guts the Affordable Care Act," Reid declared.
A partial government shutdown would keep hundreds of thousands of federal workers off the job, close national parks and generate damaging headlines for whichever side the public held responsible.
Washington faces two deadlines: The Oct. 1 start of the new budget year and a mid-October date – now estimated for the 17th – when the government can no longer borrow money to pay its bills on time and in full.
The first deadline requires Congress to pass a spending bill to allow agencies to stay open. The mid-month deadline requires Congress to increase the government's $16.7 trillion borrowing cap to avoid a first-ever default on its payments, which include interest obligations, Social Security benefits, payments to thousands of contractors large and small, and salaries for the military.
The standoff just four days before the end of the fiscal year increased the possibility of a shutdown, with no signs of compromise.
The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said that because of the time it takes the Senate to approve even non-controversial bills, if the House amends a Senate-passed spending bill and returns it to the Senate over the weekend, "That is a concession on their part that we're going to shut down the government."
Not far from the Capitol, at a community college in Largo, Md., Obama insisted he would not negotiate over his signature domestic achievement, either on a bill to keep the government operating or legislation to raise the nation's borrowing authority.
"The entire world looks to us to make sure that the world economy is stable. You don't mess with that," Obama said of the debt ceiling/default measure. "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."
Responding to Obama's non-negotiable stand, Boehner said, "Well, I'm sorry but it just doesn't work that way."
Meeting behind closed doors, House Republican leaders encountered resistance from their rank and file over the debt limit measure even though they were attaching a list of other Republican favorites such as green-lighting the Keystone XL oil pipeline, blocking federal regulation of greenhouse gases and boosting offshore oil exploration.
Republicans who lost the presidential election and a shot at Senate control last year are trying to use must-pass measures to advance agenda items that the Democratic-led Senate and Obama have soundly rejected. The last-ditch effort on "Obamacare" comes just days before coast-to-coast enrollment in the plan's health care exchanges begins Oct. 1.
Despite the popular items, the leadership was struggling to win over its recalcitrant GOP members, especially tea party-backed lawmakers pressing for deeper, deficit-cutting spending measures. The spending cuts the Republicans would attach to the debt-limit legislation would be likely to represent a small fraction of the almost $1 trillion in new borrowing authority the bill would permit.
"Among conservatives, there's a lot of angst about that," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La.
Proposed changes include requiring federal workers to contribute more to their pensions, along with other items from a failed 2011 deficit-cutting effort.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, insisted that the House accept the Senate bill.
"Republicans have got to put an end to the tea party temper tantrums and pass our bill without any gimmicks and without any games," she said.
In the Senate, top Democrat Reid sought to schedule a series of votes Thursday night to speed the short-term spending bill to the House. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, blocked the effort, however, saying they wanted the vote on Friday.
Cruz gave a 21 hour-plus speech earlier this week opposing the measure if it is changed to remove the anti-Obamacare provisions. Reid's request sparked a remarkable exchange between Cruz and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who accused the tea party duo of being publicity hounds who want a Friday vote because that's what they've told outside activists to expect.
"My two colleagues, who I respect, have sent out emails around the world and turned this into a show," Corker said, his voice dripping with derision. "And that is taking priority over getting legislation back to the House so they can take action before the country's government shuts down."
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Stephen Ohlemacher and Erica Werner contributed to this report.