WASHINGTON — With the federal government heading toward a possible shutdown Oct. 1, one might expect Congress to be racing the clock to avert that outcome.
Not exactly. Congress tends to resolve tough problems only at the final hour.
The latest round of brinkmanship, led by tea party Republicans trying to block President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, appears to be following that track. By Monday afternoon, the tea party effort appeared to be losing ground among Senate Republicans, but the schedule showed no sign of speeding up.
Tea party conservatives have vowed to block any effort to provide money for federal agencies after the end of the current budget year unless Obama agrees to a measure that would stop his health care law from going into effect. Obama has rejected that idea.
Here’s a quick guide to the week:
Monday — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., filed a procedural motion to begin debate on the House bill, which would keep the government running through Dec. 15 but eliminate money for the health care law.
Because Democrats hold the Senate majority, they have enough votes to strip the provision that would “defund” the health law. Tea party Republicans have promised a filibuster, putting them in the odd parliamentary position of trying to block debate on a bill they support.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and other tea party senators want their GOP colleagues to vote against proceeding with the bill. They argue that once the process begins, Republican hopes of gutting the health care law will be overcome by the Democrats’ ability to protect it. It is unclear how many Republicans will follow their lead. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky announced Monday that he would oppose the filibuster.
Today — A week before the possible government shutdown, Reid and McConnell were to meet with party caucuses to discuss strategy.
Wednesday — The first likely Senate vote. Under Senate rules, a supermajority of 60 would be needed to cut off debate — a procedure known as cloture — and proceed with the bill. At least six Republicans would need to vote with the 54 senators in the Democratic caucus for this to pass. If so, debate can continue up to 30 more hours.
Thursday — House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, is expected to assemble the GOP caucus in the Capitol basement for a closed-door strategy session. He hopes to persuade the tea party wing to move away from the current bill to cut off money for the health law and, instead, to focus on the next budget fight — later in October, over the administration’s request to raise the debt ceiling to keep paying the government’s bills.
Assuming cloture passes sometime Wednesday, the Senate would vote late Thursday to proceed with the bill. That requires a simple majority, which Reid would have, of 51 senators (or 50 with Vice President Joe Biden breaking a tie). Once debate on the bill starts, Cruz would launch a second filibuster, meaning Reid would have to file a new cloture motion that could not be voted on until Saturday.
Friday — If Boehner gets his way, the House could begin debating a debt ceiling bill. The Senate probably will still be tied up by a filibuster.
Saturday — The Senate probably will face another key vote — this time, on ending debate over the bill itself. Once again, Reid would have to find 60 votes. If cloture passes, that means another 30 hours of debate.
Sunday — If 60 members have agreed to stop the filibuster, the Senate would take up a Democratic measure to restore money for implementing the health law. Since that would need only a simple majority, the measure would pass, and the Senate would then approve the final bill and send it back to the House.
Then what? Boehner’s next move is unknown.