The GOP-controlled House has passed a temporary funding measure to keep the government running that is coupled with a tea party-backed measure to block President Obama's new health care law.
The 230 -189 vote sets the stage for a confrontation with the Democratic-led Senate. The Senate promises to strip the "defund Obamacare" provision from the bill next week and will challenge the House to pass it as a straightforward funding bill that Obama will sign.
The White House promises Obama would veto the measure in the unlikely event it reaches him.
At issue is the need to pass a short-term funding bill to prevent a partial government shutdown when the budget year ends on Sept. 30. Washington's longstanding budget stalemate has derailed the annual appropriations bills required to fund federal agency operations.
Typically, such measures advance with sweeping bipartisan support, but tea party activists forced GOP leaders to add a provision to cripple the health care law that's the signature accomplishment of Obama's first term.
The top Senate Democrat has pronounced the bill dead and calls the House exercise a "waste of time." The White House has issued a veto threat.
The fight over the must-do funding bill comes as Washington is bracing for an even bigger battle over increasing the government's borrowing cap to make sure the government can pay its bills. Democrats say they won't be held hostage and allow Republicans to use the must-pass measures as leverage to win legislative victories that they otherwise couldn't.
"Republicans want to play games of brinksmanship on the budget and the debt limit even though the foreseeable consequence will be plummeting stock markets and businesses freezing their hiring," said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
"If this legislation is not enacted and we embark on a government shutdown, the consequences are severe: our brave men and women of our military don't get paid, our recovering economy will take a huge hit, and our most vulnerable citizens — including the elderly and veterans who rely on critical government programs and services — could be left high and dry," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky.
In the event of a shutdown, federal workers' pay would be delayed, non-essential workers would be sent home and national parks would mostly close. But Social Security benefits, Medicare and most elements of the new health care law would continue.
Even before the House vote on Friday, lawmakers were looking a couple of moves ahead on the congressional chessboard to a scenario in which the Democratic Senate would remove the "defund Obamacare" provision and kick the funding measure back to the House for a showdown next weekend.
An earlier plan by GOP leaders like House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, designed to send a straightforward bill to keep the government running through Dec. 15 ran into too much opposition from tea party members who demanded a showdown over the Affordable Care Act, the official name of what Republicans branded Obamacare.
Boehner has sought to reassure the public and financial markets that Republicans have no interest in either a partial government shutdown when the budget year ends or a first-ever default on a broader set of U.S. obligations when the government runs out of borrowing ability by mid- to late October.
"Let me be very clear," Boehner said. "Republicans have no interest in defaulting on our debt — none."
GOP leaders want to skirt the shutdown confrontation and seek concessions when addressing the need to raise the debt ceiling next month, but Obama says he won't be forced into making concessions as he did in the 2011 debt crisis, when he accepted $2.1 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years.
Boehner accused Obama of being ready to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Syria but not to engage with Republicans on increasing the nation's debt limit.
GOP leaders scheduled a meeting with the rank and file to discuss the debt limit measure. Aides said they plan to propose attaching provisions, including a mandate to permit construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a framework to reform the loophole-cluttered U.S. tax code, limits on medical malpractice lawsuits and higher Medicare premiums for higher-income beneficiaries. Even with the grab bag of GOP chestnuts, some ardent conservatives are likely to balk at voting for any debt limit measure.
Meanwhile, a GOP family feud simmered. Many Republicans in both the House and the Senate see the "defund Obamacare" strategy as futile and faulted architects Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, for whipping up expectations among tea partyers that the fight could be effectively waged.
A key part of the law, the opening of state insurance exchanges, is set to take effect Oct. 1, so the effort to gut the health care law has added urgency among conservative activists.
When Cruz suggested in a statement that the fight could not be won in the Senate, he infuriated House Republicans.