WASHINGTON — A potential federal shutdown hurtling ever closer, the Senate dealt an emphatic defeat to a core of rebellious young conservatives Friday and approved legislation preventing government agencies from closing on Tuesday.
The 54-44 vote, however, hardly spelled an end to Washington's latest down-to-the-wire budget drama. It remains unclear whether the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-run House will be able to craft a compromise and rush it to President Barack Obama for his signature before the government has to tell hundreds of thousands of federal workers to stay home.
The fight was certain to spill into the weekend at least. House GOP leaders were still struggling Friday to win over restive conservatives and concoct a new version of the bill that would be able to win approval in their chamber — and clear the Senate too.
The high-stakes showdown was playing out in a climate of chaos, unpredictability and GOP infighting that was extraordinary even by congressional standards. Reflecting the building drama, Senate Chaplain Barry Black opened Friday's session with a prayer that included, "Lord, deliver us from governing by crisis."
Before final approval, the Senate voted 79-19 to reject an effort by some Senate conservatives to block final passage of the legislation.
Led by first-term GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, the band of conservatives has wanted to derail the shutdown bill. They argued such a move would have prevented Democrats from removing a provision blocking money for Obama's health care law and forced Democrats to negotiate on reining in that 2010 overhaul, which conservatives and many Republicans despise.
Yet Republican lawmakers opposed the conservatives' tactics, worried that it was doomed to failure and would only enhance the chances of a government shutdown for which the GOP would be blamed by voters.
The lopsided margin of the vote against the conservatives underscored the opposition they stirred in their own party. Twenty-five GOP senators voted against them, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and the Senate's other two top Republicans, John Cornyn of Texas and John Thune of South Dakota.
"It is not easy to disagree with your political party," said Cruz. "But at the end of the day, what we're doing here is bigger than partisan politics. What we're doing here is fighting for 300 million Americans," who, he asserted, widely oppose Obamacare.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., barely concealed his scorn for the conservatives' effort.
"Today, the Republican Party has been infected by a small and destructive faction," he said. Noting the increased risk of a shutdown that he said they had caused, Reid continued, "A bad day for government is a good day for the anarchists among us."
Even in the House, some Republicans were unhappy with Cruz's and Lee's efforts.
"I think that a government shutdown is counterproductive to our message in 2014, because we transfer the public's attention perhaps away from Obamacare and instead put it on the pain that will be inflicted, that is still to be determined, on the effects of a government shutdown," said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark.
The House had previously approved a version of the shutdown bill that included the language — demanded by conservatives there — stripping Obamacare money.
That House bill would keep agencies working Tuesday, when the government's new fiscal year begins, through Dec. 15. The Senate bill shortened that date to Nov. 15 in hopes of prodding congressional committees to quickly complete spending bills bearing details of agency budgets.
GOP disunity over what to include in a separate debt limit measure forced leaders to indefinitely delay that legislation, which is aimed at preventing a damaging, first-ever federal default that the Obama administration has warned could otherwise occur by Oct. 17.
At one point Thursday, GOP divisions burst into full view on the Senate floor as Cruz and Lee forced the Senate to wait until Friday to approve its bill preventing a shutdown.
"The American people are watching this" but expected the vote Friday or Saturday, said Lee, who asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to not hold the roll call on Thursday.
Reid accused the conservatives of "a big, big stall."
Asked Thursday whether he envisions the House approving a simple Senate-passed bill keeping the government open, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters, "I don't see that happening." GOP lawmakers said he signaled the same thing at a closed-door meeting Thursday.
They said the House might insert provisions into the shutdown bill repealing an unpopular tax on medical devices that helps pay for Obama's health care overhaul, or erasing federal subsidies for Congress' own health care coverage. They could then dare the Senate to reject the overall measure — and face the fallout from the government shutdown that would result.
But lawmakers and GOP aides cautioned that no decisions had been made,
in part because it was unclear whether even those provisions would help win enough votes for House passage.
In an attempt to build support for the debt limit bill, House GOP leaders considered adding a stack of provisions.
A one-year delay of "Obamacare," expedited congressional work on tax reform and clearing hurdles to the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas were considered certainties. Other possibilities included boosts in Medicare costs for higher earners, land transfers in California and Oregon, and repealing Federal Communications Commission restraints on Internet providers' ability to control available content.
Even so, many conservatives said the debt limit bill lacked sufficient spending cuts.