- - Monday, September 23, 2013

The public budget debate has been hijacked by a vociferous minority of activist conservatives aligned with a number of outside activist groups led by the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz and former Sen. Jim DeMint.

Using a variety of political threats and purity tests, they have been demanding a vote on a bill to fund the government that includes “defunding Obamacare.” Now that the House has passed the funding bill, they are getting their chance to prove that their strategy will work. Here’s why it won’t:

Resistance to the proposal had been based not on any love for President Obama’s health care scheme, but on a balancing of the chances for success of this strategy against the risks inherent in presenting Mr. Obama and the Senate with an ultimatum that will cause neither to back down.

Let’s look at what might happen. The House on Friday passed a bill that will keep the government funded through mid-December and would defund Obamacare. However, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid will amend it to strip out defunding, shorten the time period for which the government is funded, drop in a few progressive favorites, run the clock, and send it back to the House as close to the Sept. 30 deadline as possible. If so, at least Senate Democrats will be forced to vote for or against Obamacare. This, given public hostility to the plan, should cause some of them heartburn, thereby buying the same thing that would have been accomplished by House Speaker John A. Boehner’s earlier proposal that was dismissed by these same folks as a mere “gimmick.”

In fact, Mr. Cruz has already conceded this scenario is likely. After months of tweets, town halls and chest-thumping about the House needing to take the fight to the Senate, Mr. Cruz volunteered that Mr. Reid “likely has the votes” to “strip the defund language” just one day after the strategy was announced. Talk about irony when the leading senator yelling at the House to “fight” for three months concedes defeat on Day One of the ball being in his court.

This all-but-assured reality is unfortunate not only because it won’t work, but also because the original House strategy would have.

Indeed, the speaker’s proposal would have forced a “clean” vote on Obamacare that would have forced Democratic senators running next year to either embrace Obamacare or vote against the president’s pet proposal. Instead, the outside groups’ litmus tests would yield a strategy that allows Senate Democratic leaders to “muddy” the vote by including their preferred provisions.

Worse, once the bill is sent back, House Republicans will be forced to vote with their backs to the wall. They will either have to accept the Democratic counterproposal or be blamed for a government shutdown. The bottom line is that this approach could and may well allow the White House and Democratic Senate to control the endgame — to the detriment of Republicans, but not the unaccountable outside activists.

Worse yet, the funding bill might fail, actually forcing a government shutdown. Most federal employees would be sent home, but “essential” personnel would be required to continue working. In particular, the exemption for cases of “emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property” means that the armed forces would remain on duty during a shutdown without pay. Our troops would remain in harm’s way and their families will not have money for food, rent, clothing or schools simply because, as the president will argue, Republicans pursued a partisan political agenda. Not exactly a winning argument.

The same activists dismiss these concerns, arguing that voters will rally behind Republicans because the public does not support Obamacare. However, this is far from guaranteed, as Republicans should have learned in the 1990s.

A Pew poll taken in January 1996 showed that 62 percent of Americans thought a balanced budget was very important, and that if a balanced budget were to be achieved, 47 percent thought that Republicans in Congress deserved the credit versus 31 percent for President Clinton.

However, a November 1995 Gallup poll indicated that the majority of those polled thought the budget battle was about political advantage (52 percent) rather than principles (37 percent). Another poll by NBC taken during the second shutdown showed that only 17 percent thought the fight was about policy principles, compared with 76 percent thinking the fight was political.

The same dynamic will prevail today, only worse, because in the 1990s Congress had already funded the troops before the shutdown.

On top of all this, a shutdown won’t defund Obamacare. Entitlement programs such as Obamacare are largely unaffected by the annual funding appropriations. The money goes out on autopilot. Even ongoing Obamacare implementation efforts pursued by agencies that would otherwise face defunding and furloughs are insulated during a shutdown.

Obamacare is bad policy, but the activists are ignoring the reality that Republicans who control only one house of Congress are simply not in a position to force the other house and an ideologically committed Democratic president to bow to their wishes. Either the activists simply don’t recognize that they just don’t have the votes to defund it or are pursuing an agenda of self-interest.

A delay, on the other hand, could give Republicans a chance to make their case to the American voter rather than to Mr. Reid and his buddies, and that could change everything.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, is president of the American Action Forum.

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