US Senate hands on budget hot potato as shutdown looms

With the US government days from a crippling shutdown, the Senate passed a temporary budget Friday that knocked the ball into the court of stubborn Republican lawmakers the lower house.

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives, bent on thwarting President Barack Obama's healthcare reform, will likely tweak the bill and send it back to the Senate.

This could leave insufficient time for the amended bill to pass both chambers of Congress before a fiscal year-end deadline of midnight Monday.

"This is it. Time is gone," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said after the chamber voted along strict party lines, 54 Democrats to 44 Republicans, to approve stop-gap government funding until November 15.

"We've passed the only bill that can avert a government shutdown Monday night."

House Republicans last week passed their version of the federal spending bill, which included language that would have defunded Obama's health care law.

The provision on so-called "Obamacare" had been the key sticking point, and Reid did away with it after the president insisted he would not sign a budget bill that defunded his signature domestic legislative achievement.

Several Republicans supported moving forward to debate and vote on the bill in a bid to speed up the process and give the House more time to act, but they united in opposition to it once Reid removed the provision defunding Obamacare.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who voted against the stopgap budget, said the bill is "especially damaging because it wastes money on Obamacare, a law that is costing many hard-working people their hours at work, their jobs and their existing health coverage."

The Democratic majority prevailed, with Senator Barbara Mikulski saying the bill "will lay the groundwork for us to get to a solution on the long-term fiscal needs of our country."

But it was the short-term that was to be the all-consuming question Friday and through the weekend, as the House goes into session Saturday and possibly Sunday to debate and vote on a way out of the looming fiscal crisis.

Boehner has indicated his caucus was unlikely to support passage of the Senate's stripped down version, suggesting Thursday that Republicans will seek to insert some conservative sweeteners in the legislation and send it back to the Senate.

Such a move would push the US government perilously close to the end of the current fiscal year, September 30. If no funding bill is in place by Tuesday, October 1, many government agencies are mandated to start shutting their doors.

"The government's going to shut down in three days, 10 hours, five minutes and nine seconds," Reid warned.

"The bill we just passed would pass the House overwhelmingly if the speaker had the courage to bring it to the floor and let 435 members of the House of Representatives vote. I think they should think very carefully about their next step."

Some Republicans have spoken of the potential for passing a clean stopgap budget and shifting the Obamacare fight to the debt ceiling, where they feel they might have more leverage.

Congress will need to raise the nation's legal borrowing limit by October 17, according to the US Treasury, or the United States would default on its debts for the first time in history.

Some conservatives have expressed a desire to negotiate with Democrats and the White House over the debt ceiling, and want a package of pro-Republican provisions including a one-year delay to Obamacare included in any debt deal.

But first, Democrats have called on Boehner to repudiate the tea party-backed hardline faction of his caucus and pass the Senate bill to avoid a potentially crippling shutdown.

Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer warned that such a closure "could well happen."

"And why? Because the Republican House caucus is tied in a knot," he added. "Now the ball is in Speaker Boehner's court."