A fiery political battle was raging among House Republicans this week over a temporary budget bill to keep the government funded when the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.
While the nation is focused on the civil war in Syria, a budgetary civil war is being fought out here between House Republican leaders who want to avoid a government shutdown and rank-and-file conservatives who want to defund President Obama’s health care program in the pending budget plan.
House Speaker John A. Boehner and the rest of his GOP leadership have put together a budget that skirts a direct defunding of Obamacare that couldn’t pass the Democrat-controlled Senate anyway.
Instead, Mr. Boehner and his deputies have crafted a budget that contains a resolution to defund Obamacare. This provision is structured in a way to let the Senate vote it down and send the rest of the bill on to the White House for the president’s signature. Thus, the House avoids triggering another government shutdown crisis, but forces Senate Democrats to cast an up-or-down vote on ending Mr. Obama’s unpopular health insurance law.
This would be one of the most consequential votes of the 2013-14 election cycle, when Senate Democrats are facing many more tight election battles than their GOP counterparts. A number of them are from Republican “red” states where Obamacare is politically lethal.
Mr. Boehner’s plan has run into a buzz saw of opposition from Tea Party Republicans in the House and from outside conservative groups. Many want the budget to delay funds for Obamacare’s implementation for a year in the hope the GOP will win back the Senate in 2014 and be able to kill it outright. As of Wednesday, GOP leaders conceded they did not have enough votes to pass their budget as it is drafted and delayed any vote until next week.
House Republicans are also being bombarded by fierce emails from anti-tax, budget-cutting groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. “First, Boehner betrayed us by supporting Obama’s war in Syria. Now he wants to trick you into supporting Obamacare,” emailed FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe. “Boehner is jumping through hoops to help Barack Obama and betray the American people.”
Some of the incoming fire came from Republicans in the Senate, such as freshman Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “If House Republicans go along with this strategy, they will be complicit in the disaster that is Obamacare,” Mr. Cruz told a Tea Party rally at the Capitol.
However, Mr. Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and the rest of the House GOP leadership argue that shutting down the government is a strategy for defeat. If Congress cannot pass a continuing resolution, the story becomes the government shutdown, Medicare and Social Security, and other essential services that affect powerful political constituencies.
If that should happen, a third of Americans would blame Mr. Obama, but 51 percent would blame Republicans, according to a recent CNN public opinion poll.
The Democratic Senate is not going to kill Obamacare, even if it means shutting the government down. Certainly, the president is not going to sign any bill that does that or delays its rollout next year.
The Democrats and the White House would demagogue any shutdown with the support of the national news media. It would be a no-win proposition from the start for the GOP.
Mr. Boehner’s more cautious strategy is twofold: Approve a short-term bill that continues to fund the government at current levels through Dec. 15, but also continues making the sharp sequestration budget cuts and holds Democrats and Mr. Obama on a shorter spending leash.
At the same time, it would force Democrats to vote on a resolution to defund Obamacare before sending the bill to the White House — giving the Republicans a huge issue in next year’s campaigns, when 21 Democrat-held Senate seats will be at stake, compared with only 14 for the GOP.
Would Senate Democrats buy into Mr. Boehner’s bill? There is growing agreement many would, in order to put the shutdown issue behind them and move on to the federal debt limit, which may be a much tougher fight.
The bottom line: Any budget bill that attempts to end Obamacare outright has no chance of enactment. In fact, Mr. Obama’s health care law, as it becomes increasingly more unpopular, may be more politically valuable in the short-term as an issue to defeat scores of vulnerable House and Senate Democrats in 2014.
Do not underestimate the likelihood of its growing unpopularity as businesses large and small are forced to scale back on hiring to avoid its costs, jobs become even harder to come by and the declining economic life of our nation deteriorates even further.
Meantime, the latest accounting from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office tells us that the government’s debt rose by $750 billion in just the first 11 months of fiscal 2013.
Even with the automatic sequestration budget cuts, we’re still spending far more than our income, driving ourselves deeper into debt that is approaching $17 trillion.
In 1980, I wrote “Fat City,” which detailed more than 100 departments, agencies and programs that were wasting our money. If they were shut down tomorrow, few would ever notice they were gone.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.