WASHINGTON -- House Republicans returned to Washington Tuesday still at loggerheads over how to thwart President Barack Obama's health-care law without shutting down the federal government on Oct. 1.
House Republican leaders are considering alternatives that would mollify those who want to defund and delay the president's signature domestic achievement.
House Speaker John Boehner "believes that threatening a government shutdown or engaging in one is not only bad for the country but I think he believes it is the only way that Republicans lose the House in the next election," Steve Bell, a senior director at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, said in an interview.
With two weeks left before government funding expires, congressional Republicans are setting up a confrontation with Obama over a provision in the health-care law that allows individuals to sign up for insurance exchanges starting Oct. 1. This clash will occur against the backdrop of a two-year battle over federal spending and revenue levels.
One scenario involves a stopgap measure that defunds and delays the Affordable Care Act while financing the rest of the government agencies. Such legislation would be stronger than Republican leaders' proposal last week to compel the Senate to vote on defunding the health-care law without endangering money needed to keep the government running.
Leaders also are considering an option that would schedule a vote on the stopgap measure at about the same time as the decision to increase the nation's borrowing limit, said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. Under that option the debt-limit measure would include language to delay the health-care law, he said.
"It makes sense to deal with them together," Cole said in an interview, talking about approaches that could win enough Republican votes.
Whichever scenario the Republican-led House settles on this week, the Democratic-led Senate is certain to alter it and insist on saving the president's signature domestic achievement. The Senate then probably would send back to the House the spending legislation that preserves the health law, forcing a final vote that would attract enough Republican and Democratic votes to pass.
Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor have been making the case that a better venue for staging a fight over the health-care law would be legislation to authorize the debt limit. Still, dozens of Republicans don't want to forgo the spending bill for the debt-limit debate.
"The irony is this: that they can't defund it through the appropriations process," Bell said. Much of the health-care law involves mandatory rather than discretionary spending, he said.
The Affordable Care Act funding falls in the same category with other entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. That is why House leaders have intensified their case to rank- and-file members that negotiations over raising the nation's debt limit in mid-October will be a better venue for attacking the health-care law.
Congressional Republicans want to force cuts to entitlement programs in exchange for increasing borrowing authority.
"The best fight for Obamacare is the debt limit," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee and the Republican 2012 vice presidential nominee, said last week.
House Republicans haven't settled on a new strategy to fund the government. That will also determine how they will handle the debt-limit debate. Leaders are scheduled to meet with the entire Republican conference tomorrow.
With time running short, Cantor told members last week that the House may cancel a planned recess the week of Sept. 23 to negotiate on the spending measure.
The Senate could need 60 votes to start and end debate on a stopgap measure. Procedurally, the Senate can substitute a "clean" stopgap measure that funds and continues the health- care law for the House-passed bill.
The Senate's second-ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said Tuesday that the chamber probably will pass a "clean" stopgap measure that funds the government at 2013 levels, or at about $988 billion.
"What it takes to get it through the House is not what is going to be the final deal," Cole said today.
That means the House would have to cast another vote on what the Senate sends back. Boehner of Ohio would be able to pass the Senate's measure with a majority of the chamber's 233 Republicans and some Democrats to keep the government running after Sept. 30.
Republicans are "on an absurd quest to undo" the 2010 health-care law though it is the "law of the land," Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Tuesday on the Senate floor. "It's time to move on to something else," he said.
The House leaders' initial strategy last week would have held up a spending bill until the Senate voted on defunding the health-care law. Dozens of fellow Republicans objected because the spending bill could be passed even if, as is likely, the Senate kept funding for the health law.
House members then started talking about voting for postponing the health law instead of trying to defund it.
Among them, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said members realize that "we're better off with a delay." The talks are centered on how to "best" delay the law, he said.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said postponing the health-care law would be a "good fallback."
A plan put forth by Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., has gained 59 backers including Reps. Jim Jordan and Steve Chabot of Ohio, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mike McCaul of Texas and Gowdy.
Graves' bill is a spending measure for fiscal 2014 that would defund and delay the health-care law until 2015.
Another option House Republicans are weighing is delaying both the government funding and debt-ceiling fights until just before next year's congressional elections, according to two House Republican aides who asked not to be identified because the talks were private.
That would entail a one-year government spending bill, a one-year delay of the health-care law's requirement that individuals obtain insurance, and a one-year extension of the debt ceiling, the aides said. The U.S. will reach its debt ceiling as soon as mid-October.
Obama and fellow Democrats said they won't agree to conditions in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
"Congress's most fundamental job is passing a budget," Obama said in remarks at the White House Monday to mark the five-year anniversary of the financial crunch touched off by the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. "Congress needs to get it done without triggering another crisis, without shutting down our government, or worse, threatening not to pay this country's bills."
_ With assistance from Kathleen Hunter, Heidi Przybyla and James Rowley in Washington.