House disarray as US debt bills falter

Efforts by the House of Representatives to end the US debt ceiling showdown have collapsed in startling fashion, with the Republican leadership failing to muster enough support for its own plans to avert default.

House Speaker John Boehner’s team unveiled two paths out of the crisis on Tuesday, including a stripped-down Republican bill extending the US debt ceiling until February 7 and funding government for the next two months.

The first effort never got off the ground and a rules committee postponed a key hearing that would allow the second measure to reach the floor, essentially killing it.

“There will be no action, no votes and the Rules Committee will not be in tonight,” the committee’s Republican chairman Pete Sessions told reporters as the party failed to close ranks behind the proposal.

The plan came 15 days into a government shutdown, and little more than 24 hours before the United States hits a deadline when it will start running out of funds to pay its bills.

It leaves very little wiggle room for the House and Senate to fashion an agreement before the Thursday deadline that will not get hung up in procedural steps, which could happen in the Senate if any member objects to a fast-track process for a deal.

Amid rising anxiety on the markets, the financial rating agency Fitch put the United States on warning for a downgrade from its top grade AAA spot.

Aides said the House failure throws the responsibility of crafting a deal to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and top Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, who had put earlier negotiations on hold after Boehner surprised many by trying to cobble together a House plan.

“Given tonight’s events, the leaders have decided to work toward a solution that would reopen the government and prevent default,” said McConnell’s communications director Michael Brumas.

The rapid collapse of the House bill – precipitated, some say, by a memo from conservative think tank Heritage Action which threatened to score lawmakers poorly if they voted for the measure – shocked some Republicans.

“Unbelievable day. No House bill on CR (the continuing resolution to fund government) or debt,” Republican Lee Terry said on Twitter, adding it was now “up to McConnell” to stand tough on maintaining federal spending cuts.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader who lost the speaker’s gavel to Boehner in early 2011 after Republicans won back control of the House, took a swipe at her rival over the debacle.

“If @SpeakerBoehner is looking for something to vote on tonight, how about the Senate bill to open govt?” she tweeted.

Boehner’s latest measure stripped out provisions that delayed taxes which help fund President Barack Obama’s health care law.

It also funded government until only December 15, so that Republican lawmakers could take another shot at removing an “Obamacare” provision known as the contraception mandate before it goes into force January 1.

The bill would have also eliminated health insurance subsidies for members of Congress, aides and White House and cabinet officials and stripped the Treasury’s power to take special measures to manage US debt obligations.

“Even if this bill passed tonight, what would it have done?” Republican congressman Peter King, an outspoken critic of Tea Party-backed efforts to dismantle Obamacare through a shutdown and debt ceiling fight.

“After shutting down the government for two and a half weeks, laying off 800,000 people, all the damage we caused, all we would end up doing was taking away health insurance from congressional employees. That’s it?

“That’s what you go to war for? That’s what we shut down the United States government for?” he added.

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Help kids with cancer? Reid asks: ‘Why would we want to do that?’

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is blaming Republicans for the National Institutes of Health turning away cancer patients. But when asked why the Senate wouldn’t try to help “one child who has cancer” by approving a mini-spending bill, he shot back: “Why would we want to do that?”

The tense exchange occurred Wednesday, as Senate Democrats tried to lambaste Republicans ahead of a vote where the House ultimately approved funding the NIH and other agencies — a bid to ease the pain amid the budget stand-off.

Reid has opposed the measures, saying that if Republicans want to end the government suspension they’ll have to simply approve a “clean” budget bill — devoid of any provision that would hurt ObamaCare.

But Reid was challenged at a Democratic press conference by CNN’s Dana Bash about why the Senate wouldn’t consider the NIH bill.

“If you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn’t you do it?” she asked.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., quietly asked, “Why pit one against the other?”

And Reid immediately chimed in: “Why would we want to do that? I have 1,100 people at Nellis Air Force base that are sitting home. They have a few problems of their own.”

Reid’s response was widely noticed by Republicans. “How out-of-touch and heartless can Senate Democrats be?” an email from the National Republican Senatorial Committee asked.

But Reid fired back, suggesting he’s being taken out of context.

“Republicans are in such desperate straits that they have literally resorted to accusing me of not caring about kids with cancer. Shameful,” his office tweeted.

Reid argues that the Republicans are trying to “pick and choose” what parts of government to keep open, and that they should be dropping their resistance to ObamaCare and voting to keep all of government open.

“You talk about reckless and irresponsible. Wow. What this is all about is ObamaCare. They are obsessed. I don’t know what other word I can use,” Reid said.

Republicans say it’s Democrats’ refusal to negotiate the health law that has landed the country in this position.

“The entire government is shut down right now because Washington Democrats refuse to even talk about fairness for all Americans under ObamaCare,” Mike Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said in a statement. “Today, the House will continue to pass bills that reflect the American people’s priorities.”

US government shuts down

117475-obamaUS government agencies were ordered to close for the first time in more than 17 years after Congress stalemated over Republican efforts to block President Barack Obama’s health care law.

US government agencies were ordered to close for the first time in more than 17 years after Congress stalemated over Republican efforts to block President Barack Obama’s health care law.

More than 800,000 federal workers were to spend Tuesday, the first day of the new fiscal year, on unpaid leave as agency managers executed contingency plans for the costly process of closing down operations indefinitely.

The official word to shut down came from the White House just before midnight Monday. Hours earlier, the Senate, by a 54-46 party-line vote, killed a House measure that would have funded government agencies for six weeks but delayed key parts of Obamacare for a year.

Shutdown: What happens now?

It was the second such vote that the Senate took during a day in which the two chambers exchanged volleys of legislation with little expectation that any of it would become law.

The one exception to the legislative futility was a bill to ensure that military service members would be paid during the shutdown. Obama signed it into law late Monday night.

The House’s final legislative effort passed 228-201, mostly along party lines. It would have delayed for one year the requirement in the health care law that individuals have insurance or pay a fine and would have reduced benefits for members of Congress and some of their staff members.

Late at night, Republican leaders moved to set up a House-Senate committee that could seek a compromise in coming days. Democratic leaders asserted that they would not negotiate under duress and insisted that the House first pass a measure temporarily providing funds for government agencies.

Visa panic: Will this affect your travel?

“You know, with a bully you cannot let them slap you around,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the Senate’s initial vote. “They slap you around today, they slap you five or six times. Tomorrow it will be seven or eight times. We are not going to be bullied.”

Obama warned that a shutdown would harm the nation’s economy and vowed that the health care law, his signature domestic policy achievement, would move forward.

Indeed, among the ironies of the standoff is that a shutdown will have no effect on the law the Republicans tried to block. The money to implement the law does not depend on the annual spending bills stuck in the congressional logjam. A major element of Obamacare, online marketplaces that consumers without insurance can use to buy coverage, will open to the public Tuesday.

“That funding is already in place. You can’t shut it down,” Obama said during a short appearance earlier in the White House briefing room.

“This is a law that passed both houses of Congress, a law that bears my signature, a law that the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional, a law that voters chose not to repeal last November,” he said, referring to his re-election.

“I’m always willing to work with anyone of either party to make sure the Affordable Care Act works better,” he added. “But one faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn’t get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election.”

Republicans, for their part, insisted that blame for the stalemate fell on Democrats. The president and his party, they said, had put preserving Obamacare ahead of keeping government agencies running.

“Americans didn’t want Obamacare forced on them, and they don’t want a shutdown forced on them either,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. “Once again, Democrats are unwilling to listen.”

Obama spoke with the four leaders of the House and Senate on Monday evening, including a 10-minute conversation with House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, but neither side indicated progress toward a deal.

Late in the evening, after the Senate’s second set of votes, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, one of the few remaining GOP moderates, urged colleagues to compromise. “There are real lives, real families, laying awake wondering what the rest of the week is going to mean to them,” she said. “It’s not just about the next election.”

But on both sides, many more lawmakers were looking beyond Monday’s midnight deadline and focusing on which party would bear the brunt of public anger if a standoff disrupts government services.

The stalemate happened because Congress failed to pass any of the annual laws, known as appropriations, that provide money for government agencies. Federal law says agencies cannot spend money without an appropriation except when necessary to protect life or property, or in cases of programs that have permanent sources of funds.

Widespread disruption of services probably will not occur for a while. Many basic government functions do not depend on annual spending bills. Social Security cheques will go out as always, for example, as will payments under Medicare. Mail delivery will be unaffected. Courts, which have reserve funds that can last for some time, will still hear cases.

But as other government functions close, economists say, a prolonged shutdown will slow growth. A two-week standoff would shave about three-tenths of a percentage point off the current growth rate, projections indicate. Although not huge, that punch would sting in an economy expanding at less than 2 percent per year. A longer standoff would cut growth more.

The last time the government closed, during the Clinton administration, two shutdowns took place. One lasted five days; the other, affecting only part of the government, ran three weeks.

Who gets the political blame for a shutdown will have a big impact on how the standoff ends.

Nearly all Democratic strategists and many Republican ones think Democrats hold the upper hand in the current fight, indicating that Republicans would eventually have to yield. Polls so far have indicated that Americans are somewhat more likely to blame congressional Republicans than Obama for the stalemate, although the advantage Democrats have is much smaller than the one they enjoyed in the Clinton-era standoff.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday showed majorities of the public disapproving of the way all the major actors in the budget drama have handled their roles, but giving congressional Republicans the worst reviews. Obama got the approval of 41 percent and the disapproval of 50 percent. Congressional Republicans got just 26 percent approval and 63 percent disapproval; congressional Democrats, 34 percent approval and 56 percent disapproval.

Some conservative Republicans argue that Obamacare’s unpopularity ultimately will give them an advantage. Although polls show the health law is unpopular, the same surveys show the public does not support shutting down the government to block it.

In a CNN/ORC poll also released Monday, for example, Americans said, 60 percent to 34 percent, that it was “more important” for Congress to pass “a budget agreement that would avoid a government shutdown” than to approve legislation “preventing major provisions in the new health care law from taking effect.”

As several polls have shown, Democrats remain largely united behind Obama, but significant numbers of Republicans disapprove of their party’s leaders. That has proved true in Congress as well. Relatively conservative Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, have consistently voted with Reid during the current standoff. By contrast, divisions on the Republican side have been open and bitter and continued to plague the party Monday.

In closed-door meetings, some of the most conservative members objected to the leadership’s plans on the grounds that the latest House proposal would delay only part of Obamacare – the requirement that individuals buy health insurance – rather than the entire law.

On the other side, a group of Republicans, mostly from Northeastern and Midwestern states, said they believed the GOP should drop its efforts to block Obamacare and simply approve a measure to keep government agencies open. The group failed to round up enough support to block the Republican leadership’s plans on Monday, but it could become a factor if the standoff drags on.

The party’s current strategy is “a dead end,” said Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y. “We’re going to shut the government down, and, when all is said and done, we’re going to get blamed for it.

“We have too many people who live in their own echo chamber.”

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Obama fights for majority on Syria action

PRESIDENT Barack Obama has signed up power brokers in Congress for strikes on Syria but, in an era of insurgent politics haunted by Iraq, there is no guarantee the rank and file will follow.

Obama, who is on the road in Sweden, mobilised his big political and military guns on Wednesday to convince lawmakers to back his plan to punish President Bashar al-Assad over a chemical weapons attack.

The White House can already boast two significant victories.
On Tuesday, Republican House Speaker John Boehner and majority leader Eric Cantor, who more normally torment the president, gave robust support to his strategy.

Then, on Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations committee voted by 10 members to seven to authorise action in Syria – albeit under tighter rules of engagement than the White House had requested. Republican Senator Bob Corker said,

“None of us want the US mired down in another conflict, so the committee has significantly limited the president’s original authorisation, while still providing for an appropriate use of force in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons.”

For Obama to collect on the huge gamble he made in seeking congressional backing for attacks in Syria, he must win over lower ranking lawmakers who, unlike their leaders, are more concerned with their political skins than US standing in the world.

War weariness stalks America, and votes to authorise action in Syria, likely to begin next week, are tough ones – especially for House and Senate lawmakers up for re-election in 2014. Republicans face a strain of isolationist and libertarian sentiment roiling a party still working through the political trauma of the Iraq war.

Many establishment Republicans have already been knocked off their perches by “Tea Party” candidates who have challenged them from their right in nominating contests.
Anti-war liberal Democrats meanwhile are making unlikely common cause with conservatives like Senator Rand Paul, who oppose US military action.

Hawks like Republican senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain meanwhile demand a more robust effort than the “limited” strikes Obama has proposed and want to escalate US military aid to the Syrian opposition.

This splintering of party lines is complicating efforts to build a coalition behind action in Syria. But one White House official predicted sufficient support would emerge between the extremes. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said she was “quite confident” that the administration would prevail.

Another official admitted privately that the White House “will lose some Democrats” meaning that significant numbers of Republicans will be needed not just in the House, but in the Democratic-run Senate to get the bill through.

Reliable vote counts are not yet available, as hearings on the authorisation, featuring a passionate Secretary of State John Kerry take place on Capitol Hill. But a top House Democrat, Chris Van Hollen, when asked on Wednesday whether a war resolution could get through the chamber, replied: “I don’t think anybody knows right now.”

Though Boehner and Cantor are in favour – other top Republicans are wavering and could siphon away yes votes. The White House has good reason for concern. Close Obama aides privately vent frustration that Boehner has been unable to deliver his riotous caucus on other big issues, including on proposed budget deals.

Obama, often criticised for a failure to engage on key priorities on Capitol Hill, has been unusually active. A senior official said the president was calling lawmakers from abroad. On Wednesday, he also hardened his rhetoric.

“My credibility is not on the line, the international community’s credibility is on the line and America and Congress’s credibility is on the line,”

The comments appeared to be a bid to give Republicans, many of whom defy him on principle, a reason to vote ‘yes’ other than the fact the president’s prestige is at stake.