By Thomas Ferraro and David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Congress, already struggling to avert a government shutdown next week, turned its attention Wednesday to the other fiscal bullet it had to dodge: a federal debt default.
Republican leaders in the House of Representatives notified members that a vote on raising the debt limit could come as early as Friday.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew pleaded for quick action in the deeply divided Congress on raising the $16.7 statutory limit on government borrowing, as he projected an October 17 drop-dead date when only $30 billion would be left in his agency’s checking account.
Amid those dire warnings, lawmakers struggled with another potential crisis: federal agency shutdowns that could begin with the new fiscal year on October 1 unless Congress comes up with emergency funds.
The money would be used to continue paying U.S. troops, operate border patrols, provide free school lunches for poor children and thousands of other activities.
Both the debt ceiling and government funding measures were complicated by Republican attempts to use the must-do bills to gut President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law known as “Obamacare.”
A bedraggled-looking Republican Senator Ted Cruz finished a 21-hour, 19-minute marathon of standing and speaking on the Senate floor, arguing for defunding Obamacare as part of the government-funding bill.
Sporting a beard stubble and his blue tie sagging, the first-term Texas senator with presidential aspirations compared the healthcare law to the villain in the “Friday the 13th” horror films.
“Obamacare is the biggest job-killer in this country and when Jason put on his hockey mask and swung that machete, boy there was carnage like nothing else,” Cruz said.
The White House and Democrats in Congress are defending Obamacare, saying it will provide millions of Americans with health insurance that they otherwise could not afford, while potentially pushing down healthcare costs.
With his talk that began at 2:41 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, Cruz approached the Senate’s 1957 record of 24 hours, 18 minutes held by the late Senator Strom Thurmond for longest talk marathon.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, called Cruz’s effort “a big waste of time,” saying it delayed passage of the legislation to keep the government running.
A Senate Democratic aide said Republicans’ inability to rein in Cruz ultimately increased the odds of a shutdown next week.
Senate aims to move ahead
Later on Wednesday, the Senate was expected to hold a procedural vote on the funding bill, when many Republicans were expected to join Democrats in moving the legislation toward passage by this weekend.
But it was unclear what the Republican-held House would do with the Democratic Senate’s work product.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said: “We’ll deal with whatever the Senate passes when they pass it. There’s no point in speculating before that.”
There have been several trial balloons floated in recent days, including speculation that House Republicans could attach to the Senate’s spending bill measures to repeal a medical device tax that collects revenues for operating the healthcare law, a one-year delay in letting individuals sign up for the program and other ideas.
As House Republican leaders plotted out strategy in private, Republican and Democratic senators bickered over the “Affordable Health Care Act,” as they have done for nearly five years now.
A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday underscored little tolerance among Americans for government shutdowns. Eight in 10 people, according to the survey, said it would be unacceptable for Obama or members of Congress to threaten shutdowns during budget negotiations to achieve their goals.
Elected last November, Cruz, the firebrand of the conservative Tea Party movement, at times strides through the Capitol in cowboy boots. But on Wednesday morning, his feet were clad in tennis shoes that gave him added support as he stood at his lectern or paced the Senate floor all night. In black, they matched his suit.
“Obamacare isn’t working,” Cruz said in between stories about his Cuban immigrant father and reciting Doctor Seuss verse. A professed carnivore, he recounted the tribulations of Christmas dinner with his future wife’s vegetarian family.
Several Republicans have noted that with Democrats controlling the Senate and White House, there was no way they could prevail in gutting Obamacare.