After a marathon day and night of talking, the Senate moved Wednesday toward a budget plan that would keep the government open past a Monday night deadline while maintaining funding for the new health care law.
The final vote by the Democratic-run Senate should come no later than Saturday, which then would send the plan back to the Republican-ruled House of Representatives. The House would have to decide whether to agree to keep the government and Obamacare running at least for a few months or shut down parts of the government to try to force Democrats to accept some diminution of the Affordable Care Act.
The move toward Senate approval of a short-term status quo spending plan came after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, sat down at noon Wednesday, ending a 21-hour, 19-minute talkathon that protested continued funding of the health care law. Despite his efforts, the Senate voted 100-0 to move ahead with debate on the budget plan.
Cruz and his allies might have other opportunities for protests this week, but few Democrats or Republicans were eager to see them. “We could finish this bill in a matter of hours,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “But instead we find ourselves being pushed closer and closer to another shutdown.”
Veteran Republicans also derided Cruz’s tactics.
“I know how this ends,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of efforts to shut down the government. Like many Republicans in power, McCain thinks that voters would blame incumbents, especially Republicans, for a shutdown.
If Congress can’t agree on a budget plan by the start of the new fiscal year, on Oct. 1, parts of the government will begin closing. The House passed legislation Friday to keep the government running through Dec. 15, but it also defunds Obamacare. The Senate is expected by Sunday to pass a short-term plan that finances the government but includes money for the health care law, setting up a showdown with the House.
The extended debate appeared to do little other than anoint Cruz as a champion of the grass-roots conservative tea party movement. There was irony in the final vote. Though Cruz tried to filibuster, he and his backers voted to cut off debate and move ahead on the bill.
That vote, they explained, came because they like the current legislation defunding Obamacare and want to press colleagues to vote against the upcoming Democratic effort to restore the money.
Democrats painted the surprisingly unanimous vote as face-saving. “The only reason Ted Cruz switched to yes is that he would have had so few people voting with him it would have been embarrassing,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
In the meantime, Cruz stood out in a Senate that has at least two potential 2016 rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Paul had led a 13-hour protest in March over U.S. drone policy. Asked Wednesday whether he minded Cruz taking the spotlight, Paul smiled and said, “No. Congratulations to Ted for giving one long speech.”
Cruz’s star turn was driven by social media reports that followed him minute by minute, recording how he read bedtime stories to his children from the Senate floor, chastised fellow Republicans for political timidity and portrayed himself as a defender of voiceless Americans who are about to have their health care become more expensive and more inaccessible.
“The pleas from the American people, I can tell you in Texas, are deafening,” he said as he wrapped up the debate. “The frustration that the United States Senate doesn’t listen to the people is deafening.”
He’d begun talking at 2:41 p.m. Tuesday.
Cruz, an attorney who usually wears cowboy boots, said he’d “embarrassingly” decided not to wear his “argument boots,” which he’d worn to his swearing-in last January. He wore black tennis shoes instead.
Cruz’s time ended at noon Wednesday. The gavel sounded, and he sat down in his chair near the left corner of the chamber. As he sat, he got a round of applause and a standing ovation from the handful of Republican senators and staffers in the chamber.
When he emerged in the hallway to a phalanx of cameras and reporters, Cruz was asked what he’d accomplished.
“I hope that this filibuster has helped frame this debate for the American people,” he said.
Later, Cruz told McClatchy he felt terrific and had eaten “a peanut or two” during the marathon.
The spotlight might shift to the House for a while, as House Republican leaders are considering voting soon on increasing the nation’s debt limit, a separate budget showdown. Republicans might attach a provision to that bill delaying the implementation of the health care law.
Adding to the controversy, a new report released Wednesday found that the Internal Revenue Service had failed to properly account for all expenses tied to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration’s report said that from fiscal 2010 through 2012, the IRS reported costs of $488 million associated with implementation. But the report said the IRS had failed to “track all costs associated with implementation of the ACA,” specifically about $67 million in indirect costs that the agency didn’t account for or attempt to quantify.