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Divided American lawmakers careened Thursday towards a budget deadline that could see the US government shut down on October 1, as their leaders sniped over who is to blame.
The debate over how to fund government is pushing Congress to the brink for a third straight year, with Democrats and Republicans seemingly unable to compromise on a stop-gap measure, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to keep federal offices and programs running for even two and a half more months.
Conservatives who carry sway in the Republican-led House of Representatives insist they will only vote for a budget deal if it defunds President Barack Obama's national health care law, parts of which go into effect in October.
House Speaker John Boehner has introduced a CR to fund government until December 15 at a baseline rate that includes the controversial automatic budget cuts that kicked in earlier this year.
In seeking to appease the right, he inserted a measure that calls for defunding Obamacare.
But some conservatives balked, calling it a "gimmick" that could be easily stripped from legislation that passes the Democratic-controlled Senate, and Boehner on Wednesday was forced to delay the vote.
Top House and Senate leaders met Thursday to navigate through the impasse, but they sounded somber as they addressed reporters afterward.
"I'm really frightened," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, referring to the prospects of a government shutdown.
"I had to be very candid with him (Boehner), and I told him very directly that all these things they are trying to do on Obamacare are just a waste of their time."
Reid urged Boehner to break with Republicans backed by the so-called "Tea Party" faction of small-government radicals, whom he accused of using "guerrilla tactics" to bring spending to a halt.
"If the Republican leaders keep giving in to the Tea Party and their impossible demands, they must be rooting for a shutdown," Reid said.
Boehner bristled when a reporter noted there was very little time before the September 30 end of the fiscal year, which could trigger a disastrous government shutdown if no budget is in place by October 1.
"I'm well aware of the deadlines. So are my colleagues," Boehner said. "I'm going to be continuing to work with my fellow leaders and our members to address those concerns."
He stressed that his caucus nevertheless would "do everything we can to repeal, dismantle and defund Obamacare."
The two sides have shown a willingness to temporarily fund the government at the annual rate of $988 billion while they address broader fiscal challenges including the debt ceiling, which the US Treasury said will need to be raised by mid-October.
With an ongoing revolt by conservatives, the White House sought to ward off their willingness to flirt with a potential shutdown and credit default.
"We will not accept anything that delays or defunds Obamacare," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
"Congress needs to pass a budget and not attach politically motivated riders to their funding bills."
Lawmakers returned from summer break last week expecting to focus on fiscal issues, but the Syria crisis postponed those debates, and on Thursday House Majority Leader Eric Cantor warned members that Congress might have to cancel an upcoming break set for the week of September 23.
Hot on the heels of the budget battle, Congress must agree on raising the government's legal borrowing limit, currently at $16.7 trillion, or risk a calamitous default.
Conservatives in the Senate, too, have been adamant about refusing to raise the debt cap unless Obamacare is defunded, further complicating efforts to reach fiscal stability this year.
"I've never seen anything quite like this," Senator Chuck Schumer said.
The Republican Study Committee of House conservatives is floating a plan that would avoid a government shutdown while delaying the implementation of Obamacare for one year.
"While we're not there yet, productive conversations towards that goal continue," the group's chairman Steve Scalise said.