Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to reporters Wednesday after he spoke on the Senate floor for more than 21 hours in a bid to defund Obamacare. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Showdown Over a Shutdown
If the White House and lawmakers on Capitol Hill fail to agree on a temporary spending deal by Monday, the US government will shut down for the first time since 1996. Click here for complete coverage.
WASHINGTON — Senior US senators say it’s still too early to predict the final contents of a short-term government spending measure, nor exactly when both chambers will approve it.
The upper chamber on Wednesday moved beyond Sen. Ted Cruz’s 21-hour floor diatribe and approved a procedural measure moving the chamber one small step closer to passing a measure to keep the government running.
The procedural vote — which was 100-0 — won’t keep Defense Department and other federal facilities open on Oct. 1, but it does set up a series of votes on ending debate and on amendments to a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through Nov. 15.
And senators involved in talks about how to construct a package the House and Senate can approve say they aren’t sure just how the chaotic process will play out.
“I have no idea,” Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told Defense News with a chuckle when asked if there is enough time for the chambers to ping-pong different versions of the CR and pass a final bill before an 11:59 p.m. (EST) Monday deadline to keep the government open.
“The House can do things very quickly,” Senate Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said moments later to the same question.
Can the Senate also move with lightning legislative speed? “Now that’s a good question,” Shelby said with a wide grin.
Senior senators from both parties said there is little consensus yet on the contents and size of a CR that can pass the GOP-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate.
But several Republican senators said they would gladly support a government-wide short-term CR that includes post-sequestration spending levels.
The House-approved bill would fund the government at a level of $986 billion, but some Republican members are beginning to posture as the CR clock ticks closer to zero.
“I’d sure like for the final package to be a smaller number,” Shelby told Defense News. “$967 [billion], that’s what I’d like.”
“What I’d like to see is the House pass a continuing resolution at the Budget Control Act caps,” one Republican senator said.
But Democrats say that’s unlikely to pass the Senate.
“I think the level that’s in the House bill will be the final level,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters.
Levin shook his head when asked if Democrats would approve a bill with less total funding.
Senate leaders say they hope to hold a final vote on their short-term CR on Sunday, giving the House just over 24 hours to either take up that measure or send back another version.
The House last week passed a $986 billion CR that would fund the Pentagon and other federal entities through Dec. 15. Senate Democrats this week decided to pass a shorter-term CR, while also stripping out House-approved language that would defund President Barack Obama’s health care reform law.
Senate Democratic leaders want to pass a six-week CR, then a mini-omnibus spending bill in mid-December that would fund the Pentagon and other agencies for the remainder of fiscal 2014.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., announced Tuesday that Democratic leaders intend to try to cancel the 2014 round of sequestration cuts in that mini-omnibus bill, which could include some full-year appropriations bills.
She said they want to do that by finding “strategic” federal spending cuts, raising new revenues by doing things like closing loopholes, and addressing mandatory spending.
Such a package would have to include $110 billion to offset twin defense and domestic spending cuts that are slated to kick in Jan. 1 and would total that amount.
The Wednesday vote came after Cruz held the Senate floor for around 21 hours, criticizing Obamacare throughout the night. Tea party GOP members say Obamacare already is harming the US economy and will only do further damage as it is fully implemented.
Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Cruz’s actions “a big waste of time,” adding “we could finish this bill in a matter of hours” if the Senate’s most-conservative GOP members would allow it.
Some Senate aides said leadership hoped Cruz would not control the floor until noon Wednesday, but he did. Leaders hoped Cruz would give up the floor and yield back the GOP’s remaining time, allowing the procedural vote to occur sooner.
That would have sped up the Senate’s process, and possibly have allowed the chamber to send the House a bill on Saturday. Lawmakers and aides worry the House now won’t complete its work on Monday, meaning a short shutdown would occur.
A senior Senate Republican leadership aide told Defense News that with Reid and Cruz now interested in helping the upper chamber move faster so the House can have as much time as possible, the Senate likely will pass its version of the bill “no later than Saturday evening.”