Washington - Washington stumbled toward a shutdown Thursday as the Republican Party's right wing blocked a strategy by House Speaker John Boehner for navigating a series of deadlines to keep the government funded and avoid a first-ever default.
Boehner, R-Ohio, and his leadership team revealed the first step of that plan to rank-and-file members early Thursday, urging conservatives to shift their assault on President Barack Obama's health care law to the coming fight over the federal debt limit.
That would allow lawmakers in the meantime to try to reach an agreement on a plan to fund federal agencies into the new fiscal year, which begins Tuesday, and avoid a shutdown.
But about two dozen hard-liners rejected that approach, saying they will not talk about the debt limit until the battle over government funding is resolved.
"Quite frankly, I think that's primarily where we need to be putting our attention," said Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., who has led the drive in the House to use the threat of a shutdown to defund implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature legislative achievement.
Late Thursday afternoon, Boehner convened an emergency meeting of his leadership team to try to hash things out. They emerged with no answers, and no clear path forward for any piece of legislation, neither to keep the lights on in Washington nor to make sure the Treasury Department can continue to pay the nation's bills by raising the borrowing limit.
"We're getting a lot of feedback, so there hasn't been a decision that's been made yet," said Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, a top vote-counter for the House GOP. "Our members are ... very reasonable, they're thoughtful and they want to move forward. But they want to move forward on something that's significant."
As Republicans struggled in the House, GOP hard-liners also were blocking progress in the Senate, where most members of both parties were ready to vote late Thursday on a plan to keep the government operating through Nov. 15.
But Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, objected. Although both men voted earlier this week to advance the measure, they argued Thursday that Republicans should now unite to kill it.
That prompted an angry Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to appear in the Senate chamber for a remarkable debate in which he accused Cruz of blocking the late-night vote and delaying it until today so he could "turn this into a show" for his supporters from the tea party movement and conservative political organizations, such as Heritage Action for America.
"I'm understanding the reason we're waiting is that y'all have sent out releases and emails and you want everybody to be able to watch," Corker said. "And that is taking priority over getting legislation back to the House so they can take action before the country's government shuts down."
Cruz declined to address that allegation, and accused Corker of assisting Democrats in their effort to strip the House-passed bill of provisions to defund the health care law.
"It would be fantastic if Senate Republicans could show the same unity" as House Republicans did in passing the measure last week, Cruz said.
The Senate is now expected to approve a stripped-down government-funding bill today and send it back to the House, where its fate is unclear. GOP leaders insisted Thursday that the House would not approve a simple funding bill without conservative sweeteners. "I do not see that happening," Boehner said.
Rep. Patrick Tiberi, R-Ohio, a close Boehner ally, predicted that the speaker would amend the government-funding bill to add a one-year delay of the individual mandate, which requires all Americans to have health-insurance next year.
Another Boehner ally, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., predicted that Boehner would instead seek to add a measure that would eliminate subsidies for members of Congress to buy health insurance - although some Republicans complained at the morning meeting that such a move would create an economic hardship for their families, GOP aides said.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats - appearing at a news conference with a countdown clock ticking away the hours, minutes and seconds to a shutdown - said they would not approve a funding measure that required any concessions related to the health care law.
"We'll have to see what they decide, because right now they don't know," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of House leaders. "They're in this ditch, and they want to get out of it, but they keep digging deeper and deeper and deeper. And this ditch is - they can hardly see out of the top of it now. I don't know what they're going to do."
The day began with Boehner full of hope and bravado. His leadership team had agreed on a new strategy for keeping the government operating - the third this month - and had drafted a massive proposal to suspend enforcement of the debt limit through Dec. 5, 2014.
The debt-limit bill is packed with conservative goodies, including almost every measure the House has approved since Boehner became speaker in 2011. Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., thought the package had a good chance of attracting the support of 217 Republicans. If it did, they hoped to approve it and send it to the Democratic-controlled Senate this weekend.
"Now, the president says, "I'm not going to negotiate' (over the debt limit). Well, I'm sorry, but it just doesn't work that way," Boehner told reporters after a morning meeting where he presented the proposal to GOP lawmakers.
Senior advisers explained that passing the debt-limit bill was key to keeping the government open: Once lawmakers had voted for the debt-limit bill, with its one-year delay of the health care law, they might be more willing to support a measure to fund federal agencies without provisions to defund the health care law.
But within hours, a rebellion was brewing. The most conservative bloc of Republicans announced that they would oppose the debt-limit bill until they saw how the fight over the government-funding bill played out.
And there were other danger signs, according to senior aides to Republicans who ordinarily support the speaker and Cantor. Some mainstream conservatives complained that the debt-limit proposal falls woefully short of Boehner's pledge to cut spending in an amount equal to the size of the increase in the debt limit - more than $1 trillion, in this case.
As lawmakers streamed into the House chamber for a series of votes mid-afternoon, members of Boehner's leadership team began trying to assess the level of support. Afterward, the speaker summoned Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and other senior lawmakers to his office just off the Capitol rotunda.
The meeting lasted less than an hour. Afterward, the formal release of the debt-limit bill was delayed. McCarthy blew past reporters without commenting on the chamber's schedule. And rank-and-file lawmakers were left guessing what would come next.
The day ended with an ominous message from Cantor's office that lawmakers would be in session today, Saturday and Sunday. There was no mention of what, exactly, they would do.
"This is a change," the message said, "from the previously announced schedule."