WASHINGTON (AP) — A potential government shutdown hurtling ever closer, the Democratic-led Senate moved Friday toward passing legislation keeping the government open, but disputes with and among Republicans ensured that the fight likely would spill into the weekend and possibly longer.
The result: a high-stakes showdown that is playing out in a climate of chaos, infighting and unpredictability that is extraordinary even by congressional standards. Reflecting the building drama, Senate Chaplain Barry Black opened Friday's session with a prayer that included, "Lord, deliver us from governing by crisis."
With the current budget year ending Monday and at least a partial shutdown threatened in the absence of legislation, the Senate was poised for critical votes later Friday. Lawmakers were expected to pass the legislation after derailing a conservative effort to block the bill, and after removing House-approved language that would have stripped funding from President Barack Obama's health care law.
Passage would bounce the legislation back to the House, where GOP leaders already have declared the pared-down Senate bill insufficient. But top House Republicans, unable to corral enough votes for an alternative due to rebellious conservatives, were mum about their next move and planned no votes on the budget bill until the weekend at least.
As the Senate debated the bill, Iowa's Tom Harkin criticized conservatives for "throwing a temper tantrum" and risking a government shutdown because they dislike Obamacare. The veteran Democrat said their ideology-driven behavior was "every bit as dangerous as the breakup of the Union before the Civil War."
Led by first-term GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, a small band of Senate conservatives has wanted to block the shutdown bill. They argue such a move would prevent Democrats from removing the language that defunds Obamacare and would force them to negotiate on reining in the wide-reaching health care law, even though such a scenario sets up the risk of at least a partial government shutdown next Tuesday.
"It's about showing people we're going to do what we say we're going to," Lee told colleagues, "even when, especially when, it's inconvenient."But the conservatives have run into opposition from many in their own party — more senior Republicans who see the tactic as doomed to defeat and as a strategy that boosts the odds of a federal shutdown for which Republicans likely would be blamed.
Even in the House, some Republicans were unhappy with Cruz's and Lee's efforts.
"I think that a government shutdown is counterproductive to our message in 2014 because we transfer the public's attention perhaps away from Obamacare and instead put it on the pain that will be inflicted, that is still to be determined, on the effects of a government shutdown," said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark.
GOP disunity over what to include in a separate debt limit measure forced leaders to indefinitely delay that legislation, which is aimed at preventing a damaging, first-ever federal default that the Obama administration has warned could otherwise occur by Oct. 17.
At one point Thursday, GOP divisions burst into full view on the Senate floor as Cruz and Lee forced the Senate to wait until Friday to approve its bill preventing a shutdown.
"The American people are watching this" but expected the vote Friday or Saturday, said Lee, who asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to not hold the roll call on Thursday.
Reid accused the conservatives of "a big, big stall."
Asked Thursday whether he envisions the House approving a simple Senate-passed bill keeping the government open, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters, "I don't see that happening." GOP lawmakers said he signaled the same thing at a closed-door meeting Thursday.
They said the House might insert provisions into the shutdown bill repealing an unpopular tax on medical devices that helps pay for Obama's health care overhaul, or erasing federal subsidies for Congress' own health care coverage. They could then dare the Senate to reject the overall measure — and face the fallout from the government shutdown that would result.
But lawmakers and GOP aides cautioned that no decisions had been made, in part because it was unclear whether even those provisions would help win enough votes for House passage.
In an attempt to build support, House GOP leaders considered adding a stack of provisions.
A one-year delay of "Obamacare," expedited congressional work on tax reform and clearing hurdles to the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas were considered certainties. Other possibilities included boosts in Medicare costs for higher earners, land transfers in California and Oregon, and repealing Federal Communications Commission restraints on Internet providers' ability to control available content.
Even so, many conservatives said the debt limit bill lacked sufficient spending cuts.