CAPITOL HILL— The U.S. Senate has voted unanimously to begin formal consideration of a bill to keep the federal government running beyond the end of the month. President Barack Obama’s signature health care law remains at the center of a partisan battle over funding, and time is running out for a politically divided Congress to pass a unified bill before a threatened shutdown begins October 1.
The Senate has started debate on a bill passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives last week that extends federal spending authority but defunds the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” The Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to restore Obamacare funding in coming days.
Majority Leader Harry Reid urged swift action. “We have a lot to do, and we should get there as quickly as we can. Every hour that we delay here is an hour closer to shutting down the government.”
The Senate acted after a marathon speech by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. For nearly 22 hours, Cruz urged colleagues to block funding of the law.
“Small businesses are crying out that Obamacare is killing them, and unfortunately the United States Senate is not hearing their cries. For the millions of Americans who are facing skyrocketing health insurance premiums and the reality or the risk of losing their health insurance, the United States Senate is not hearing their cry,” he said.
Cruz voted with all other senators to begin debate. The seeming contradiction of pursuing a stalling tactic while voting to advance the legislative process can be explained by the fact that Cruz is expected to oppose proceeding to a final vote on a spending bill days from now.
Cruz’ stamina and oratory did not impress Reid.
“It [Cruz’ speech] has been interesting to watch. But for lack of a better way of describing this, it has been a big waste of time,” said Reid.
And Cruz’ effort was rejected by some of his Republican colleagues. Senator John McCain said voters spoke on Obamacare last year. “They [voters] spoke much to my dismay, but they spoke. And they reelected the president of the United States,” he said.
Another Republican, Senator Dan Coats, said the fight to defund Obamacare is misguided.
“Shutting down the government will not stop Obamacare. We [Republicans] do not have the votes to defeat it.”
Democrats were happy to join in the criticism, among them Senator Charles Schumer, who said, “Debate Obamacare all you want. But please do not threaten to shut down the government because you cannot get your way.”
The Senate is expected to pass a funding bill by Sunday - one day before federal spending authority expires. Then, focus will shift back to the House of Representatives, where many Republicans remain committed to defunding Obamacare. A limited government shutdown will be averted only if both houses pass an identical spending bill.
The White House continues to defend Obamacare. Spokesman Jay Carney hailed a report showing that Americans in many states will have multiple low-cost health insurance plans to choose from when major components of the law are implemented next month.