By Richard Cowan and David Lawder
WASHINGTON, Sept 17 (Reuters) - Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives faced increasing pressure on Tuesday from their restive caucus for a stop-gap government funding plan that defunds or delays “Obamacare” health reforms.
An aide to House Speaker John Boehner denied a report by the conservative National Review magazine that Boehner had decided to allow a vote on a funding measure that avoids a Oct. 1 government shutdown but defunds President Barack Obama’s signature health insurance reform law.
House Republicans were set to discuss their options for the funding deadline in a closed-door meeting on Wednesday morning in the Capitol.
“No decisions have been made, or will be made, until House Republican members meet and talk tomorrow,” said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman.
After House conservatives rejected a plan put forth by Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last week as not strong enough, an alternative measure to delay Obamacare reforms for a year coupled to a year’s worth of temporary funding has been gaining steam.
However, one House Republican aide thought the measure most likely would provide government funding through mid-December instead of for the full fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.
On Tuesday, the plan’s author, Representative Tom Graves of Georgia, said that some 70 House Republicans had signed on as cosponsors to the measure, a substantial bloc among the 233 House Republicans.
One of Graves’ co-sponsors, Representative Steve Southerland of Florida, said the Obamacare delay plan would be discussed prominently in Wednesday’s closed-door meeting.
“We want to protect the American people from a bad law and we want to make sure that the government is funded to provide services that the American people deserve and expect,” Southerland told reporters. “It’s the Republican party that’s trying to figure out as hard as we can to do both of those things.”
If the House were to include a provision hobbling Obamacare, the Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to strip it out and simply approve the government program funding, sending it back to the House for final approval. Many House Democratic votes could be needed to win passage of the bill in the Republican-controlled House.
Some Republicans said that they also view a fight over the raising the $16.7 trillion federal debt ceiling as a “fallback” position on delaying Obamacare. The U.S. Treasury has said an increase in federal borrowing capacity is needed by mid-October in order to ensure that payment obligations can be met.
“I think the play is on the debt ceiling. That’s where I want to attach the full delay of Obamacare for a year,” said Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, adding that he believed the Treasury can continue to pay interest on its debt while cutting back other services.
Some Democrats on Tuesday predicted a tough battle over a potential government shutdown on Oct. 1 as they seek to defend Obamacare and restore spending levels sharply reduced by “sequester” automatic spending cuts.
Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said the atmosphere in Congress is worse than it was in 1995-96 when a similar funding impasse closed federal agencies.
“I think we’re going to have a fight,” Representative Steny Hoyer told reporters, adding that 18 years ago there were significantly more moderate Republicans willing to seek compromises with Democrats and still there were shutdowns.
Now, Hoyer said, Republicans “terrified of the Tea Party,” are hurting prospects for a deal on government spending.
House Republicans backed by the smaller-government Tea Party movement want to use the spending bill and upcoming legislation to raise U.S. borrowing authority as battlegrounds for both paring back the size of government and stopping or delaying a new national healthcare law.
Unless the Republican-controlled House, the Democratic-controlled Senate and Obama reach an agreement on funding levels for Congress in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, most government activities will grind to a halt for lack of money.
While Senate Democrats are certain to reject any House passed measure to defund or delay Obamacare, which aims to extend healthcare coverage to millions more Americans, taking that step could help revive long-dormant bipartisan negotiations on a broader fiscal solution.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did not offer any help to House Republicans in their dilemma on Tuesday, saying the Senate would simply wait and see what the House passes.
“It’s up to the House. We’re waiting for them to act. Until they act, we’re going to do nothing,” said Reid, the Senate’s top Democrat.
Hoyer laid down a tough marker, however, saying that he would vote against a stopgap spending bill - even one without attacks on Obamacare - if that measure aimed to spend only $988 billion for the full fiscal year.
“$1.058 trillion I think is the right number,” Hoyer said, explaining that it would fund government at the levels called for in a 2011 budget law, but without the additional across-the-board spending cuts that began earlier this year.
Many Republicans want to maintain the tougher deficit-reduction discipline that the automatic spending cuts provide and they argue that Obamacare, over the long-run, will hurt the economy and add to budget deficits.