CAPITOL HILL— After two weeks focused on the crisis in Syria, the U.S. Congress is turning its attention to looming fiscal deadlines. Unless lawmakers approve a funding extension, the federal government will shut down October 1. Unless they raise America’s debt limit weeks later, the United States risks default and another national credit downgrade. A partisan battle over President Barack Obama’s signature health care law presents a major stumbling block.
The president Thursday spelled out his fiscal priorities.
“That we are dealing properly with a federal budget, that bills are getting paid on time, that the full faith and credit of the United States is preserved," Obama said.
What stands in the way? A partisan fight over the Affordable Care Act, or as some call it, 'Obamacare,' which seeks to expand the number of Americans with health care insurance. A major component of Obamacare will be activated October 1.
Many Republicans who control the House of Representatives say they will vote down any spending bill unless Obamacare is de-funded.
"We are again taking steps to dismantle the president’s health care law, which is driving up the costs of health care, and making it harder for businesses to hire new workers," said House Speaker John Boehner.
Democrats, who control the Senate, pledge to oppose any spending bill that omits Obamacare funding.
“I hope he [Boehner] realizes that Democrats are not delaying Obamacare, that we certainly are not negotiating over the debt limits, and that it is insane to play partisan games with our nation’s economy," said Senate Budget Committee chairwoman Patty Murray..
Republican lawmakers have sought Obamacare’s demise since its enactment in 2010. With the law set to go into effect, many see upcoming fiscal fights as their last chance to succeed.
“A full repeal of this job-killing mess of a law. That is what it is," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Any defunding of Obamacare would have to originate in the House of Representatives. But House Republicans appear split between Tea Party conservatives willing to shut down the government over Obamacare and moderate members who fear a political backlash.
Democratic Senator Richard Durbin says Speaker Boehner will put his House majority at risk if he seeks to de-fund Obamacare at all costs.
“He will pay a price for it. And the price will come in the [2014 midterm] election," he said.
Such warnings are overblown, according to Dan Holler of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who says House Republicans should stand strong.
“The reason they were elected in 2010 and reelected in 2012 was to serve as a check on President Obama and do everything in their power to push back on Obamacare," he said.
House Democrats say the nation’s business is being held hostage to a narrow partisan agenda.
“There was a poll taken on November 2012. The president of the United States won that poll," said Representative Steny Hoyer. "But your myopic focus on that one issue threatens to shut down government, and put at risk the creditworthiness of the United States of America."
How will the battle play out? No one knows for sure, but Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget notes that Congress has narrowly avoided shutdowns in recent years.
“I think there is definitely a chance of a government shutdown, but I think it is pretty low," he said. "We are usually pretty good at finding the minimal solution at exactly the last minute."
One possible solution: a temporary spending measure that funds Obamacare passed by Democrats and moderate Republicans. Tea Party Republicans recently objected to precisely such a bill, and it was set aside.