It was a conscious strategy by Republican leaders to steer clear of threatening a government shutdown over the unachievable goal of gutting President Barack Obama's signature legislative achievement. Procedurally they had an escape hatch: they were merely agreeing to debate the House-passed bill, which keeps the federal government running until Dec. 15 but denies funding to implement the Affordable Care Act.
"Invoking cloture on a bill that defunds Obamacare, doesn't raise taxes and respects the Budget Control Act strikes me as a no-brainer," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Democratic leaders intend to restore the Obamacare funds when debate ends with a simple majority vote, as Senate rules permit them to do. Cruz and other conservatives wanted Republicans to block cloture until Reid agreed to a 60-vote threshold for amendments.
"I know how this movie ends. I don't know all the scenes, but I know that at the end, we don't defund Obamacare," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told reporters in the Capitol. "It'll be a cold day in Gila Bend, Arizona" -- a desert town known for its scorching heat -- "before we defund Obamacare. Very cold day. In fact, there might be a snowstorm."
Senate Democrats' substitute bill would move funding to extend to Nov. 15, instead of the House's version which funds the government until Dec. 15. Reid said Democrats will also eliminate a House-passed provision to prioritize debt payments to foreign creditors and Social Security recipients in the event that the country's borrowing authority expires.
Both the House and Senate bills fund the government at $986.3 billion, roughly what the government is spending now after the automatic cuts ordered by the sequester. It's a victory for conservatives who lock in a lower spending level than most Democrats want. Senior Democratic aides insist the move was tactical and they'll still push to replace sequestration.
Cruz's vote for cloture after his call for a filibuster caused plenty of confusion. But there are multiple cloture votes. Wednesday's vote was about *beginning* debate. What Cruz wants is for 41 senators to vote against *ending* debate and moving toward final passage unless Democrats allow a 60-vote threshold to fund Obamacare.
"Cloture on the bill, the vote Friday or Saturday, is the vote that matters," he said.
If Republicans don't filibuster the cloture motion to end debate, and if both sides avail of their debate time, the Senate will likely wrap up the bill late this week or during the weekend. Then it'll be send to the House, where Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will have little time to pass the Senate version or face a government shutdown.
The lights go out when the clock strikes midnight on Monday night.