WASHINGTON — The collapse of a GOP strategy to halt President Obama's healthcare law has Republican leaders scrambling to find other ways to dismantle it as part of legislation needed to fund the government in a few days or trigger a shutdown.
Time is not on their side: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has monopolized the floor in his lonely filibuster-like campaign to kill the Affordable Care Act. Patience among Republicans for the renegade senator's go-it-alone strategy is waning as money for routine government operations is set to run out by Oct. 1.
Republicans huddled again Wednesday after a rare 100 to 0 vote in the Senate to end the first round of debate over a bill that would fund the government but not the healthcare law. Cruz, who had just completed one of the longest speeches in Senate history, urged Republicans to oppose an upcoming motion as part of his effort to stall the bill. He did not attend the strategy session.
"All I know is how it ends: We don't defund Obamacare," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as he emerged from the private lunch. "Seen this movie before."
Republicans are in the minority in the Senate, and Democrats have the votes to protect the president's signature law.
With that endgame understood, Republican leaders want Cruz to wrap up his moment in the limelight so that they can quickly dispatch the legislation back to the House. That would give Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) ample time to attach amendments that would curtail, but not kill, Obamacare.
A do-over could have better results, Republicans argued, if the GOP-led House attached a provision that would be difficult for some Senate Democrats to oppose. Among those being considered: a repeal of the new tax on medical device manufacturers that some Democrats dislike, or a delay of the mandate that all Americans carry health insurance or pay a fine in 2014.
"My own view is it would be to the advantage of our colleagues in the House, who are in the majority, to shorten the process," said Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has distanced himself from Cruz's strategy. "If the House doesn't get what we send over there until Monday, they're in a pretty tough spot."
But that strategy could leave lawmakers in the same stalemate if Senate Democrats remain unified in protecting the Affordable Care Act, as they appear inclined to do.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has led efforts to halt the medical device tax, said linking the measures "is not the strategy we're pushing for this time. We see this as part of a bigger budget deal or as part of some more rational changes to the healthcare bill."
House Republicans truncated a recess to return to Washington on Wednesday amid the shifting debate, which intensified as Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew locked in the next deadline: the need to raise the nation's debt limit by Oct. 17 to continue paying already accrued bills.
In a letter to congressional leaders, Lew urged Congress to "act immediately" to raise the $16.7-trillion borrowing limit or risk "catastrophic" results.
Boehner had hoped to use the debt limit legislation as the next opportunity for the GOP to extract concessions from the White House on the healthcare law.
But those efforts have become complicated by the threat of a government shutdown and the House Republican strategy of loading up the debt limit legislation with other demands, including a requirement that the administration approve construction of the stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline between Canada and the United States.
As Congress heads toward a weekend session with no clear exit strategy, lawmakers may opt to pass a stopgap measure to fund the government for a week or so beyond Oct. 1 while talks continue.
But until the Senate wraps up its debate, Boehner's spokesman said, there is "no point in speculating."
Cruz initially showed little interest in yielding his prolonged crusade. But after finishing his all-night floor speech late Wednesday morning, Cruz suggested speeding up the next key vote by one day to Friday. That vote is viewed by Republicans as their last chance to prevent Democrats from preserving Obamacare.
Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli and Jim Puzzanghera in Washington contributed to this report.