By Rachelle Younglai and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Congress, struggling to avert a government shutdown next week, was warned by the Obama administration on Wednesday that the Treasury was quickly running out of funds to pay government bills and could soon face a damaging debt default.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew pleaded with Congress to raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit and said the government would not be able to borrow funds past October 17.
After that date, only $30 billion would be left in the Treasury’s checking account, putting the country on course to miss crucial debt payments, Lew said.
Amid Treasury’s dire default warning, lawmakers grappled with another potential crisis: federal agency shutdowns that could begin with the new fiscal year next Tuesday unless Congress comes up with emergency funds.
The money would be used to pay U.S. troops, operate border patrols, provide free school lunches for poor children and thousands of other activities.
The Democratic-led Senate is on track to vote on Saturday for legislation to avert government agency shutdowns. But the Republican-led House of Representatives was set for tough fights over the next few days.
Both the debt ceiling and government funding measures were complicated by Republican attempts to use the must-do bills to gut President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law, known as “Obamacare.”
At a private meeting with House Democrats on Wednesday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reassured lawmakers they would not allow Republicans to include provisions to delay or defund Obamacare in the spending bill.
“We are not going to accept anything damaging on Obamacare,” Reid told Democrats, according to an aide at the meeting.
‘HIGHEST RISK I HAVE SEEN’
Earlier, disheveled Republican Senator Ted Cruz finished a 21-hour, 19-minute marathon of standing and speaking on the Senate floor, arguing for defunding Obamacare as part of the government-funding bill.
Sporting a beard stubble and his blue tie sagging, the first-term Texas senator, believed to have presidential aspirations, compared the healthcare law to the villain in the “Friday the 13th” horror films.
“Obamacare is the biggest job-killer in this country and when Jason put on his hockey mask and swung that machete, boy there was carnage like nothing else,” Cruz said.
Cruz later voted to advance the temporary spending bill after saying anybody who voted to cut off debate was voting for Obamacare.
The White House and Democrats in Congress say Obamacare will provide millions of Americans with health insurance that they otherwise could not afford, while potentially pushing down healthcare costs.
With his talk that began at 2:41 p.m. on Tuesday, Cruz approached the 1957 record of 24 hours, 18 minutes, held by late Senator Strom Thurmond, for the longest Senate talk marathon.
Reid called Cruz’s effort “a big waste of time,” saying it delayed passage of the legislation to keep the government running.
Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, told reporters that the chamber’s Republican leaders had not yet reached out to Democrats to discuss keeping the government running and raising the debt limit.
House Democratic votes could end up being crucial to passing either bill if House Speaker John Boehner loses too many of his own Republicans.
Hoyer fretted about the possibility of a government shutdown, saying, “This is the highest risk I have seen because I see the least willingness to do what is absolutely essential in democracy and that is to work together.”
SENATE AIMS TO MOVE AHEAD, HOUSE ACTION UNKNOWN
Republican leaders in the House notified members that a vote on raising the debt limit could come as early as Friday.
One Republican congressional aide said the first debt limit bill from conservatives would go nowhere. But the aide said moderate Republicans were hoping for a debt limit deal that would get rid of the automatic budget cuts and use the savings for retirement and health insurance entitlement programs for the elderly.
House Republicans are due to huddle early on Thursday to try to plan their next moves on the spending and debt limit bills.
It is unclear what the House would do with the Senate’s product. “We’ll deal with whatever the Senate passes when they pass it. There’s no point in speculating before that,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.
There have been several trial balloons floated in recent days, including speculation that House Republicans could attach to the Senate bill measures to repeal a medical device tax that collects revenues for operating the healthcare law, a one-year delay in letting individuals sign up for the program and other ideas.
As House Republican leaders plotted out strategy in private, Republican and Democratic senators bickered over the “Affordable Health Care Act,” as they have done for nearly five years.
A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday underscored that Americans have little tolerance for government shutdowns. Eight in 10 people, according to the survey, said it would be unacceptable for Obama or lawmakers to threaten shutdowns during budget negotiations to achieve their goals.
Elected in November 2012, Cruz, a firebrand backed by the conservative Tea Party movement, sometimes strides through the Capitol in cowboy boots. But by Wednesday morning, his feet were clad in tennis shoes that gave him added support as he stood at his lectern or paced the Senate floor for hours. In black, they matched his suit.
“Obamacare isn’t working,” Cruz said in between stories about his Cuban immigrant father and reciting Doctor Seuss verse.
After Cruz ended his talk marathon, he drew a rebuke from senior Republican Senator John McCain, who complained that Cruz had compared those unwilling to embrace his methods to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and others who were willing to appease Nazi Germany before World War Two.
Several Republicans have noted that with Democrats controlling the Senate and White House, there was no way they could prevail in gutting Obamacare.