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By Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A familiar Washington melodrama - will they or won't they shut down the government - took center stage on Friday when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill to fund the government, but only if President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare law is ransacked.
Notching their 42nd vote against "Obamacare" and knowing full well the Democratic Senate will reject it, Republicans in the House cast their votes, staged a noisy celebration in front of a placard declaring: "SenateMustAct," and then left town for several days to give time for the Senate to demolish its work.
"The Senate will not pass any bill that defunds or delays Obamacare," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said flatly.
Later on Friday, Obama called House Speaker John Boehner, to reiterate he would not negotiate on another bill that will soon be before Congress: one to increase U.S. borrowing authority, which is rapidly approaching its $16.7 trillion limit.
House Republicans said they were considering a series of controversial initiatives to attach to that bill, which likely prompted Obama's phone call.
A White House official said Obama told Boehner in the call that the American people had worked long and hard to dig the country out of the financial crisis and the last thing they needed was another politically motivated, self-inflicted wound.
Obama, who would veto any bill that stripped funds from his healthcare law, hit the road too, as he has in past fiscal showdowns. "They're not focused on you," he said of the Republicans as he spoke at a Ford plant in Liberty, Missouri. "They're focused on politics. They're focused on how to mess with me."
Jeff Wright, a United Auto Workers officer waiting for Obama, commented, "They're completely dysfunctional."
If both houses fail to pass a bill funding the government, it could shut down on October 1, although most Capitol Hill observers doubt it will come to that.
Without prompt agreement in Congress on a new funding bill, agencies including the FBI, Education Department, Defense Department and Environmental Protection Agency would have to curtail many non-essential operations on October 1, the first day of the new fiscal year.
CALLING OUT DEMOCRATS
The Republican maneuver seemed equally designed to get members of Congress in both houses on the record on Obamacare in the run-up to the 2014 congressional elections.
After the vote on Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called out the names of potentially vulnerable Senate Democrats who will now be confronted with casting a vote on an issue Republicans see as a winner for them.
But even some Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have been dismissive of their House colleagues' tactics, calling them futile.
They were joined on Thursday by New York Republican Representative Peter King, who told CNN that the party was "carrying out a fraud with the people by somehow implying or even saying that this strategy is going to win."
He then voted in favor of the funding bill, complete with the Obamacare provision.
Representative Scott Rigell of Virginia, the lone Republican to vote against the House bill, was accused of a "betrayal" by the politically conservative advocacy group, Americans for Limited Government. The group's president, Nathan Mehrens, said Rigell "now owns it every bit as much as if he had voted for Obamacare's passage."
Rigell, who represents a district with a heavy military presence, defended his stance. He said the spending bill failed to address the steep automatic spending cuts on defense programs.
The measure passed on Friday on a largely partisan vote of 230-189. Only two centrist Democrats, Representatives Jim Matheson of Utah and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, voted for the bill.
As Republicans celebrated its passage with a "rally" in the Capitol, some senior members of the party confided to Reuters that their leaders appeared to have no plan on how to both please conservatives, who push for smaller government, and ultimately get legislation enacted into law.
Asked what Boehner would do if the Senate, as expected, removes the Obamacare provision and sends a bill back to the House that simply continues government programs at their current rate of spending, one House Republican said: "We don't know what they (leadership) would do. ... I don't think they know what they would do."
'WOLF IN WOLF'S CLOTHING'
Against that backdrop, the debate over Obamacare and government spending raged on the House floor with neither Republicans nor Democrats showing any sign of compromise.
"Let's defund this law now and protect the American people from the economic calamity that we know Obamacare will create," Cantor said as he argued that employers were cutting back on their workers' hours in order to skirt requirements of the healthcare law.
Cantor's counterpart, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, shot back at Republicans: "You know what that's about? That's simply about putting their friends, the insurance companies back in charge of medical decisions for your families."
Pelosi also called the bill "a wolf in wolf's clothing."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers urged quick passage of the bill that he said "is absolutely necessary to keep the lights on" at government agencies.
Republican Representative Frank Wolf implored, "You can't shut down the federal prison system, FBI counterterrorism activities," weather forecasting and NASA space exploration.
Government spending was not the only cloud hovering over the Capitol.
Sometime in October or early November, the U.S. Treasury will hit its $16.7 trillion limit on borrowing. Without legislation to raise the "statutory debt ceiling," the United States, for the first time, would default on loans from bondholders such as the Chinese government.
Here again, House Republicans were in disarray as conservatives pressed to attach the destruction of Obamacare and other pet initiatives to a debt limit measure.
Veteran Representative Pete Sessions was swarmed by reporters as he left a closed-door meeting of his fellow Republicans.
Asked what would be attached to a debt limit bill that is supposed to come to the House floor next week, Sessions said: "What we're trying to do is come together as a team to understand what all might be in that. When we do that, we'll have an idea what we're going to do. There are options and ideas and potentials."
Sessions declined to elaborate.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland; Editing by Grant McCool, Fred Barbash and Peter Cooney)