WASHINGTON - Compromise elusive, Republicans and Democrats engaged in finger-pointing Monday just hours before the first government shutdown in 17 years, driven by an intractable budget dispute over President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
"This law is not ready for prime time," said Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who insisted that the Democratic-controlled Senate act quickly and accept a House measure that would avert a shutdown -- but only by delaying further implementation of the health care law for a year.
"Where, oh where, has the Senate gone?" asked Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas.
House Democrats soundly rejected the GOP alternative and pleaded for an end to the fighting. Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., implored Boehner to be "the leader of this body" -- Democrats and Republicans.
The Senate returns shortly after 2 p.m. EDT -- just 10 hours before a threatened shutdown -- and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his Democrats have made it clear that they want a straightforward bill to keep the government operating and won't accept any GOP-crafted legislation that delays or unravels the 3-year-old health care law.
If no compromise can be reached by midnight, Americans would soon see the impact: National parks would close. Many low-to-moderate incomes borrowers and first-time homebuyers seeking government-backed mortgages could face delays. Passport applications would be delayed.
One program that will begin on Tuesday -- even with a shutdown -- is enrollment in new health care exchanges for millions of Americans -- a crucial part of Obama's health care law. That's because most of the program is paid from monies not subject to congressional appropriations.
But about 800,000 federal workers, many already reeling from the effect of the automatic budget cuts, would be forced off the job without pay. Some critical services such as patrolling the borders, inspecting meat and controlling air traffic would continue. Social Security benefits would be sent, and the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs for the elderly and poor would continue to pay doctors and hospitals.
A House GOP leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, said the House would rebuff the Senate's efforts to advance the short-term funding bill as a simple, "clean" measure shorn of anti-heath care reform provisions.
Since the last government shutdown 17 years ago, temporary funding bills known as continuing resolutions have been noncontroversial, with neither party willing to chance a shutdown to achieve legislative goals it couldn't otherwise win.
"You're going to shut down the government if you can't prevent millions of Americans from getting affordable care," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
A leader of the tea party Republicans, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, insisted the blame rests with Senate Democrats.
"The House has twice now voted to keep the government open. And if we have a shutdown, it will only be because when the Senate comes back, (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid says, `I refuse even to talk,"' said Cruz, who led a 21-hour broadside against allowing the temporary funding bill to advance if stripped clean of a tea party-backed provision to derail Obamacare. The effort failed.
The battle started with a House vote to pass the short-term funding bill with a provision that would have eliminated the federal dollars needed to put Obama's health care overhaul into place. The Senate voted along party lines to strip that out and sent the measure back to the House.
The latest House bill, passed early Sunday by a near party-line vote of 231-192, sent back to the Senate two major changes: a one-year delay of key provisions of the health insurance law and repeal of a new tax on medical devices that partially funds it. The steps still go too far for the White House and its Democratic allies.
McCarthy said the House "will have a few other options" for the Senate to consider, though he did not specify them. "The House will get back together in enough time, send another provision not to shut the government down, but to fund it," he said.
He suggested that House Republicans would try blocking a mandate that individuals buy health insurance or face a tax penalty, saying there might be some Democratic support in the Senate for that.
On the other hand, Democrats said the GOP's bravado may fade as the deadline to avert a shutdown nears.
Asked whether he could vote for a "clean" temporary funding bill, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said he couldn't. But he added, "I think there's enough people in the Republican Party who are willing to do that. And I think that's what you're going to see."
A leading Senate GOP moderate called on her fellow Republicans to back down.
"I disagree with the strategy of linking Obamacare with the continuing functioning of government -- a strategy that cannot possibly work," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
House Republicans argued that they had already made compromises; for instance, their latest measure would leave intact most
parts of the health care law that have taken effect, including requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions and to let families' plans cover children up to age 26. They also would allow insurers to deny contraception coverage based on religious or moral objections.
Tea party lawmakers in the House -- egged on by Cruz -- forced GOP leaders to abandon an earlier plan to deliver a "clean" stopgap spending bill to the Senate and move the fight to another must-do measure looming in mid-October: a bill to increase the government's borrowing cap to avert a market-rattling, first-ever default on U.S. obligations.
McCarthy appeared on "Fox News Sunday," while Cruz and Labrador were on NBC's "Meet the Press." Van Hollen appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation."