Obamacare Funding Fight Leaves Senate Republicans Split

A Tea Party attempt to defund Obamacare has the Senate moving in slow motion toward a bill to fund the government beyond Sept. 30. Today, Senate Republicans met in a closed-door strategy session, where a number of them were expected to register their displeasure with the defund plan and its chief proponent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

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The Tea Party faction within the Senate isn't giving up on its mission to defund Obamacare. Led by Ted Cruz of Texas, they're urging other Republicans to join them in blocking a spending bill unless Congress defunds Obamacare. If the Tea Party's effort gains traction, then the government faces a possible shutdown on October 1st. Today, Senate Republicans met in a closed-door meeting to discuss strategy. And with us now to talk about this is NPR congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. Hi, Ailsa.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hi there.

SIEGEL: Let's catch up on where we are on this process. The House bill that the Senate is now considering keeps the government running, but it also defunds the president's health care law. The Senate Democrats want to scrap that defunding language. How do they plan to do that?

CHANG: Well, first, what's going to happen tomorrow is a procedural vote to start actual debate on the bill itself. And even Ted Cruz conceded today that he'll likely lose that vote. And then what Majority Leader Harry Reid is going to do is let the Senate rules work to his advantage.

So here's how that would happen. Once they start debate on the House bill, the one that contains the defunding language, Reid will file various amendments. And one of those amendments will be a provision that gets rid of that Obamacare defunding language. And then after debate on the House bill closes, Reid will bring up his amendments for a vote.

And at that point, any of those amendments, including the one that restores funding to the health care law, will need only a simple majority vote for approval, meaning 51 senators. It's a Democratically controlled chamber. The amendment to restore funds to the health care law will almost certainly be adopted. But we could be here through most of the weekend for the Senate to get all of this done.

SIEGEL: It sounds very complicated, but it also sounds like a done deal. And even so, Cruz is still expecting to put up a fight?

CHANG: Oh, yes. Cruz is trying to get other Republicans to help him block this House bill from moving forward in the Senate. So notice the really awkward position he's putting his colleagues in. He is asking them to help stop a bill most of them like, that is a bill that defunds Obamacare. But Cruz says that's the only way to prevent Reid from altering the language to restore funds to Obamacare. And that's why earlier today, Cruz made this pledge on the floor.

SEN. TED CRUZ: I intend to speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand.

CHANG: So we will likely see him attempt a filibuster later this week when the Senate tries to close debate and move to an up-or-down vote on the House bill.

SIEGEL: And we'll see how long he can stand.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Today, Senate Republicans met on strategy. Did you get the sense that Cruz is drumming up any support for his plan?

CHANG: No, not really. If anything, he seems to be irritating many of his colleagues. What I heard more from Republicans today are the many reasons they need to let this House bill move quickly through the Senate. For starters, there are Republicans who think defunding Obamacare is a lost cause as long as Obama is president and the Senate is controlled by Democrats. Here's John McCain of Arizona.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: My opinion is, it'll be a cold day in Gila Bend, Ariz., when we defund Obamacare - a very cold day. In fact, it may be a snowstorm in Gila Bend, Ariz., when that happens.

CHANG: And then there are Republicans who say this is the wrong time to be having this fight. Saxby Chambliss, of Georgia, says the government is about to run out of money, and Congress will be blamed for that if that happens.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: I think it's pretty obvious that if we don't go forward with the bill, then there will be a shutdown. And I think everybody on both sides of the issue is trying to avoid in every way we can that happening. So we'll see.

CHANG: So the thinking is, among many Republicans, maybe it's better to fight the health care law in October when Congress is dealing with the debt limit.

SIEGEL: And where does the Senate Republican leadership stand in all this?

CHANG: Well, both Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, and his number two, John Cornyn have said they're not going to support filibustering this bill. What McConnell wants to do is peel off Democrats when Reid brings his amendment to restore funds up for a vote. If Reid loses five Democrats, the amendment fails. But in all likelihood, the amendment will not fail. And then the bill bounces back to the House, and now we're all within day of a government shutdown.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR congressional reporter Ailsa Chang.

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