Utah congressmen dig in as government shutdown likely
By Thomas Burr
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Sep 28 2013 10:19PM
Washington • An effort started by Sen. Mike Lee to halt funding for the Affordable Care Act, and the ensuing partisan bickering on Capitol Hill, is likely to result in a federal government shutdown come Tuesday.
Senate leaders are refusing to take up a measure passed by the House on Saturday to temporarily fund the government but delay the health care law for one year.
While Republicans charged that the Democrat-run Senate should pass their bill — which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said is dead on arrival — the House prepared for the first government closure in 17 years by passing legislation to pay active-duty soldiers in the event the standstill continues.
All four of Utah’s congressmen, including Democrat Jim Matheson, voted for the GOP funding measure.
The Saturday showdown puts the United States on course to furlough hundreds of thousands of workers, shutter national parks and halt nonessential services after midnight Monday. A majority of the 30,000 federal employees in Utah could be told to stay home, and go unpaid, until the Washington gridlock ends.
There was no end in sight Saturday.
Reid called the House Republican’s bill "pointless" and outright objected to taking up their legislation.
"Senate Democrats have shown that we are willing to debate and vote on a wide range of issues, including efforts to improve the Affordable Care Act," Reid said. "We continue to be willing to debate these issues in a calm and rational atmosphere. But the American people will not be extorted by tea party anarchists."
Reid and Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have called out Lee and others for using the government’s budget as leverage to kill the three-year-old health care law — while Lee has used the situation to burnish his conservative credentials and raise campaign funds.
If the government closes for the first time since 1996, the confrontation began simply enough with a July 25 letter drafted by Lee.
Several Republican senators joined Lee in agreeing they would oppose any government funding bill that included money for the health care law, known as Obamacare, a hard-line stance that resulted in back-and-forth squabbling between the House and Senate and, with both sides digging in at the last minute, an inevitable shutdown.
While Lee began the fight, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, became the public face of the "defund Obamacare" effort and the tea party pair squared off at times with their fellow Republicans, half of whom joined with Democrats to take up legislation that Lee and Cruz were trying to block.
The Senate on Friday passed a temporary funding bill that would restore money for Obamacare and promptly adjourned until Monday. Even if there were support to take up the House bill from Saturday, Senate rules would make it difficult and potentially impossible to vote on it by the Monday deadline.
Lee says he doesn’t want the government to shutter — he says it would be Democrats’ fault if it did — but had asked House Republicans to stand firm and not cave to Senate Democrats.
"Sitting back and doing nothing is not acceptable," Lee told a Conservative Political Action Conference in St. Louis on Friday, according to video of the event, "not when the federal government is trying to take over our health care system."
House Republicans held out hope that the Senate would act to stave off a shutdown but they also passed legislation to make sure soldiers were paid during any government closure; without that legislation, soldiers would have been required to show up but not be paid until the government is up and running again.
Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who was making plans to furlough some of his own staff, said that vote wasn’t an acknowledgment that the government was going to close.
"I don’t think we’re saying it’s inevitable. I don’t believe it’s inevitable," Stewart said. "But I think it’s good we’re prepared for the eventuality that it might."
Matheson, who voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010, said he backed the GOP measure because he supports a delay in the law and wants to keep the government operating.
But, Matheson said, "I’m pretty disappointed that the leadership of the House of Representatives decided to add these other provisions to the funding bill. This could very well lead to a government shut down. ... I think we deserve better political leadership from Washington."
But Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the House legislation is something Democrats should want: it funds the government through Dec. 15 and delays the health care law so that all its kinks can be worked out.
"Right now I feel very positive about this," Bishop said. "This is something Democrats in the Senate should not oppose."
The White House said that if Obama were presented with the House-passed measure, he would veto it. It was a non-threat, though, since the Senate isn’t likely to pass it.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Senate Democrats should at least bring it up.
"Why don’t we try something new, let’s vote," Chaffetz said. "The president keeps saying he was elected, well, so were we. I think they ought to take the vote."
The Senate, though, isn’t even expected to take a vote, and as the potential government closure nears, government agencies outlined plans on what employees were essential and pointed out various programs that would be curtailed. Members of Congress will continue to be paid even if the government shuts down.
Ironically, the government will also continue to implement the Affordable Care Act and Americans will be able to start signing up for health care on the same day the government could shutter.
Utah’s members did point to a silver lining in the House-passed funding bill, the removal of a medical device tax that is part of the health care law but that industry officials say helps foreign competitors and hurts small businesses.
The 2.3 percent excise tax came under fire from both Republicans and Democrats and Sen. Orrin Hatch and Matheson had led the charge to eliminate it.
Utah is home to several medical device businesses that have fought the new tax.