US careens toward shutdown over Obamacare

President Barack Obama waves after he answered a question on the looming federal government shutdown after making a statement to reporters during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. The White House said the two leaders would discuss negotiations with the Palestinians, developments in Syria and Iran. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama waves after he answered a question on the looming federal government shutdown after making a statement to reporters during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. The White House said the two leaders would discuss negotiations with the Palestinians, developments in Syria and Iran. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A conservative challenge to President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law pushed the federal government Monday to the brink of the first partial shutdown in 17 years.

Just hours before the midnight (0400 GMT) deadline, the Democratic-led Senate was expected to reject a measure passed by the Republican-led House to tie government funding to a delay in the health plan. Then it will be up to the House to accept a spending bill that doesn’t delay the health initiative – which it has refused to do – or find an alternative acceptable to the Senate.

If it fails to do either of those options, the government faces closures that would force 800,000 federal workers off the job without pay and rattle the shaky U.S. economic recovery.

The prospect of a shutdown contributed to a decline in stock markets around the world, and U.S. stocks tumbled sharply after Wall Street opened Monday.

Some critical services would continue, such as patrolling the borders, inspecting meat and controlling air traffic, and health care programs for the poor and elderly. The State Department would continue processing foreign applications for visas, and embassies and consulates overseas would continue to provide services to American citizens.

Since the last government shutdown in 1995-1996, temporary funding bills have been noncontroversial, with neither party willing to chance a shutdown to achieve legislative goals it couldn’t otherwise win.

But with the 3-year-old health care law nearing implementation, hardcore tea party conservatives are determined to use the spending bill as leverage to derail Obama’s chief domestic accomplishment.

Even if Congress averts a shutdown, Republicans are sure to move the health care fight to another must-do measure looming in mid-October: a bill to increase the government’s borrowing cap to avert a market-rattling, first-ever default on U.S. obligations.

The health care overhaul, which has come to be known as “Obamacare,” is aimed at providing health coverage for millions of uninsured Americans. Exchanges are set to open Tuesday under the law where people can shop for health care coverage from private insurers.

Republicans insist the initiative is already costing jobs and will drive up health care costs. Democrats argue otherwise and accuse Republicans of holding a routine funding measure hostage to unfairly extract concessions.

The battle started with a House vote to pass the short-term funding bill with a provision that would have defunded implementation of the health care overhaul. The Senate voted along party lines to strip that out and lobbed the measure back to the House.

The latest House measure, passed early Sunday by a near party-line vote of 231-192, sent back to the Senate two key changes: a one year delay of key provisions of the health insurance law and repeal of a new tax on medical devices that partially funds it, steps that still go too far for The White House and its Democratic allies.

Senate rules often make it difficult to act quickly, but the chamber can act on the House’s latest proposals by simply calling them up and killing them on a non-debatable motion.

Even some Republicans said privately they feared that Democratic Senate leader Reid holds the advantage in the fast-approaching end game.

Republicans argued that they had already made compromises; for instance, their latest measure would leave intact most parts of the health care law that have taken effect, including requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions and to let families’ plans cover children up to age 26. They also would allow insurers to deny contraception coverage based on religious or moral objections.

Democrats were confident they could hold firm, and some more senior Republicans acknowledged that the situation is rife with political risk for their party.

A leading Senate moderate called on her fellow Republicans to back down.

“I disagree with the strategy of linking Obamacare with the continuing functioning of government — a strategy that cannot possibly work,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

___

Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Alan Fram and David Espo contributed to this report.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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