The move forces a clash in the Senate that will put Republicans and Democrats at odds -- and Republicans at odds with themselves -- just 10 days away from what would be the first government shutdown since 1996. Even the wildly dysfunctional Congress of recent years has managed to avert shutdowns at every juncture.
There is virtually no chance Obamacare will be defunded. Senate Democrats have ruled it out, and the White House has threatened to veto legislation that does so.
"I invite my colleagues wake up from this radical, ideological wet dream," Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) said before the vote.
Senate Democrats' task now is to get 60 votes -- which means they'll need some Republicans -- to advance a continuing resolution that aims to strip out the House's anti-Obamacare language. Leadership aides say they have a way forward that requires Republicans to help them move the House's stopgap bill procedurally but gives them an "out" to vote against eliminating the provision to defund Obamacare.
But the senators who demanded this fight -- Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) -- now have to prove they're actually able to go to the mat. They spent weeks deriding House Republican leaders as weak on Obamacare and scuttled their earlier plan to lock in low spending levels while avoiding a shutdown confrontation. That means they'll be pressured to deny Democrats the votes to move any bill that ends up defunding Obamacare.
"This is the most important fight in the country," Cruz said Thursday.
Neither of the two senators are committing to filibuster if Democrats try to restore the funding for Obamacare. "They won't get 60 votes. Every Republican voted to defund Obamacare in the CR in March," said Lee's spokeswoman Emily Bennion. Cruz's spokeswoman Catherine Frazier told TPM only that "all options are on the table."
The move also puts Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is up for re-election, in a predicament between his GOP base and the need to avert a government shutdown and protect his party's hopes of winning back the majority next election.
The House legislation orders the government to prioritize payments to foreign creditors and Social Security recipients in the event that the U.S. breaches its borrowing limit, which is projected to happen mid-October without congressional action. Senate Democrats also want to eliminate that provision.
The legislation funds the government at $986 billion -- levels adopted by the so-called sequester, or automatic spending cuts required by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Senate Democrats are signaling they'll accept those spending levels temporarily, even though they'd ideally want to replace the the across-the-board cuts. That would be a victory for Republicans, who insist on sustaining the cuts, giving them a stronger negotiating hand next time around.
The deadline to avoid a shutdown is Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends.