3 Milestones on the Road to a Shutdown

Here is the sequence of steps Washington will take this week before it faces a pivotal decision

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, center, speaks at a news conference with conservative congressional Republicans at the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 19, 2013

In seven days, most of the federal government will be shuttered unless Congress can break its impasse on how to fund it. Before the crisis climaxes at midnight Sept. 30, lawmakers will slog through a mix of arcane procedural maneuvers and political theater. Here is the sequence of steps Washington will take this week in the run-up to the potential shutdown:

1. Senate majority leader Harry Reid sets up a vote to fund the government while removing the House-passed provision that would defund President Obama’s health care law.

The first step toward a resolution of the crisis is clear: early this week, Reid will file a procedural motion to open debate on the three-month funding measure passed on Sept. 20 by the Republican-controlled House. Shortly after, Reid will file for cloture to end debate on the measure. Cloture requires a 30-hour waiting period, then as many as 30 hours of debate. At the end of that debate, Reid needs 60 votes to move forward, a threshold he should reach because many Republican Senators are disinclined to filibuster a bill they support. After cloture, but before final passage, Reid will move to amend the House-passed funding bill to strip out the language defunding Obamacare — a move that would only require a simple majority.

2. Enter Ted Cruz.

For months, the Texas Senator has called for a stopgap budget bill that defunds Obamacare. Now that the House has passed one, Cruz intends to block the bill, potentially forcing a government shutdown in the process. “A vote for cloture is a vote for Obamacare,” Cruz said on Fox News Sunday. A move to filibuster the very bill he has long sought would encapsulate the absurdity of Congress, but Cruz has only himself to blame. He spent months hectoring his House colleagues to pass the doomed funding measure. When they complied last week, they did so in part to force Cruz to live up to his more-conservative-than-thou talk. But Reid’s ability to harness Senate rules means Cruz has no hope to actually prevent Senate Democrats from stripping out the Obamacare provision. The best he can do is to launch a rare talking filibuster, which would be a spectacle, but can only delay the inevitable. At some point, he will have to concede defeat.

3. Boehner’s move.

Then, potentially as late as Sunday, the Senate will send its “clean” stopgap funding measure to the Republican-controlled House. There members of both parties will face a tough decision on how to proceed, with just hours to decide whether or not to fund the government. House Republicans are keeping what’s left of their strategy close to the vest, but suggest there will be time to tinker with the Senate bill and send back their changes. A cadre of hard-right conservatives say they won’t vote for a so-called continuing resolution that funds Obamacare; Representative Tim Huelskamp, one of the members leading the charge, estimated that between 60 and 70 colleagues would refuse to vote for a clean funding bill. If he’s right, House Speaker John Boehner gets the final, toughest decision: break with his ideological base and pass a bill that keeps the government open with a rump faction of Democratic votes, or lead his party into a shutdown that will likely damage its standing with voters.

And if Congress is able to sidestep a shutdown? Conservatives will be even angrier and less receptive to compromise when it comes time to lift the federal debt limit in mid-October.