WASHINGTON - GOP leaders eager to avoid blame for a possible government shutdown next month appear confounded by conservatives' passion for using fast-approaching deadlines to derail the implementation of President Barack Obama's health care law.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, conceded Thursday his plan was all but dead for quickly passing a temporary spending bill that also defunds Obamacare, make the Senate vote on each idea separately and then send only the portion for keeping the government open to the White House for the president's signature.
Meanwhile, new freelance effort by rank-and-file Republicans to condition keeping the government open or preventing a debt ceiling default on delaying Obamacare for a year hit a brick wall of opposition from Democrats vowing to never let the health care law be delayed or unraveled.
Nonetheless, some Republicans floated the idea of postponing all of the unimplemented portions of the new law for a year -- including a requirement that virtually everyone buys health insurance and with new tax subsidies to help many people pay for it -- in exchange for raising the government's borrowing cap and easing tens of billions of dollars in broad, automatic spending cuts.
"Let's give them something and then we get something in exchange," Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said. "We give the administration the debt ceiling increase they want. We give them maybe some sequestration dollars that they would like to have. And in exchange we delay Obamacare, which I think the president should want. ... He's already delayed big chunks of it. It's not ready for implementation."
The administration has delayed a provision of the health care law requiring larger employers to provide health insurance to their workers. State exchanges through which people can purchase health insurance are set to begin operation Oct. 1.
Washington faces two key deadlines in coming weeks. The first is Oct. 1, when a stopgap spending measure will be needed to fund federal agency operations such as employee salaries, equipment and other costs. Without new spending authority, non-essential government operations would shut down for the first time since 1996. Even if the government shuts down, however, Social Security, Medicare and other so-called mandatory programs would continue to operate on autopilot.
The other, far more important must-pass measure looms later in October and would increase the government's borrowing limit so it can pay all of its bills, including Social Security benefits, interest payments on government debt, and payments to local governments and government contractors. Defaulting of those obligations would have far greater consequences for both the economy and the political fortunes of the politicians that bear the blame from voters.
The White House vowed again Thursday that it will do everything in its power to protect and defend Obama's health care law, his most significant accomplishment in office.
"We will not accept anything that delays or defunds Obamacare," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
"It's not going to happen. It's the law of the land. It's been upheld by the Supreme Court," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. "So anybody who ties the operations of the government or the debt ceiling to trying to defeat Obamacare is really in favor of shutting down the government and having us default on our debt."
The chaos on Capitol Hill forced House leaders to tell lawmakers they'll likely have to scrap a vacation set for the week of Sept. 23 so they can be available to work out a short-term spending bill to keep the government running past the Oct. 1 start of the new budget year.
On Tuesday, GOP leaders proposed a plan to advance the measure through the House coupled with a provision to derail implementation of the new health care law but allow the Democratic Senate to send it on to the White House shorn of the "defund 'Obamacare'" provision as long as there was a vote on it. That got poor reviews from some conservatives who don't see it as fighting hard enough to block Obamacare.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is privately proposing a one-year delay of Obamacare implementation as part of the stopgap funding bill. The flaw in that strategy is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could win a vote to strip the Obamacare provision out in the Senate and send it straight back to the House.
"There are a lot of members with a lot of ideas," Boehner said. "And we're going to continue to talk to all of them."
The speaker met Wednesday with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew - an adversary from the 2011 budget and debt negotiations -- and presented him with a list of examples in which debt ceiling legislation has been paired with budget cuts. Such examples including budget pacts in 2011, 1997 and 1990.
"For decades the White House, the Congress have used the debt limit to find bipartisan solutions on the deficit and the debt. Now these types of changes were signed into law by Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton -- and President Obama himself two years ago," Boehner said. The administration says is won't negotiate on the debt limit after Republicans used it in 2011 to demand spending cuts.
On numerous other occasions, including seven instances during the administration of George W. Bush, Republicans have delivered support for debt ceiling increases without any spending cuts attached. That's what the administration and Democrats are demanding now, and they're confident that Republicans have less leverage than they think.
"If push comes to shove on debt ceiling, I'm virtually certain they blink," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "They know they shouldn't be playing havoc with the markets."