With fewer than 72 hours before a potential government shutdown, the House reconvenes Saturday to decide how lawmakers should respond to a Senate spending bill that keeps Obamacare funding intact.
Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team used Friday as a "weather balloon day," according to a senior GOP aide -- floating scenarios and meeting with members to gauge support.
But on Saturday, the time for hypothetical talk will be over. House Republicans will have to determine -- in a hurry – the most effective way to both keep the government running and damage Obamacare.
With so many moving parts, and so little time to accomplish so much, even some lawmakers are having a tough time keeping everything straight. We're here to help. Here's a cheat-sheet detailing what to watch for this weekend on Capitol Hill:
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Boehner on Thursday pitched Republicans on a debt-ceiling proposal featuring a one-year delay in implementing the Affordable Care Act. This proposed maneuver was strategically timed to allow House Republicans to register another vote against Obamacare before being forced days later to pass a continuing resolution that funds the very law they have promised to defund.
But conservatives criticized that approach as a poor negotiating tactic and demanded they be allowed to respond to the Senate's CR before considering a separate, complex debt-ceiling package.
While it looks resolved – with leadership caving and planning a vote first on the revised CR – this timing question could rise again if Republicans fail to coalesce around details of said CR. So, don't be surprised to hear renewed calls this weekend to reshuffle the votes in hopes of greasing the legislative skids.
Now that the Senate has stripped the GOP's Obamacare defunding provision from the CR, the House has to decide how to return volley. There are a lot of options, and the two most obvious among them are also the most unlikely.
At one extreme, the House could simply pass the Senate's "clean" CR, which would go to President Obama's desk and immediately be signed into law. (This scenario is improbable, considering Boehner already rejected it and his members would break into mutiny if he did otherwise.) At the other, the House could re-insert the defund language and send back to the Senate a CR identical to the one it just rejected. (A few conservatives have advocated this, but GOP leadership won't permit such a waste of time at this late stage.)
That means the likely Republican approach will fall somewhere in the middle – with the addition of some, perhaps many, conservative-friendly policy provisions to the spending bill.
A growing chorus of conservatives is calling for the second CR to include a delay (not a defund) of Obamacare, just as the GOP debt-ceiling package does. (There are variations of the proposed delay, ranging from several months, to one year, to the beginning of 2015.) The problem with this, of course, is that Senate Democrats would almost certainly reject it -- and even if they didn't, Obama would produce his veto pen in record time. Meanwhile, the back-and-forth over that revised proposal would likely take several days, ushering in the government shutdown that GOP leadership says it wants to avoid.
Some Republicans think their only chance of avoiding a shutdown while damaging Obamacare is to settle for a smaller-scale policy victory, like attaching a provision to repeal the unpopular medical device tax. But here again, the White House has warned it will not accept that either.
There's a chance Boehner offers to package several smaller GOP policy initiatives into the CR, hoping to pick off different members with different pet issues. But it's far from clear that even one of these provisions could pass the Senate.
A SHORT-TERM 'FIX'
There's only one way Republicans can add conservative goodies to the CR (like an Obamacare delay or Keystone XL pipeline approval) while also avoiding a shutdown. They would have to send the Senate some attached contingency language that keeps the government funded for a very short period – say a week. That way, even if the senators reject the House language, they could approve separate legislation to keep the government running for long enough to allow Republicans to again revamp their proposal.
In the end, such a "solution" would only buy Boehner time. He'd still be grappling with the very same problem of devising a proposal that unites his conference but also stands a chance of clearing Congress.
There are a handful of House conservatives, however, who are simply determined to hurt Obamacare – no matter the collateral damage. This is not a mainstream approach, and in fact many Republicans have warned repeatedly about the dangers of a government shutdown. But there are enough hardliners – 15 to 20, perhaps – to potentially derail any GOP proposal they view as insufficient in its attack on the health care law.
That's where the math gets tricky for Boehner. There are 233 Republicans in the House, and 217 votes are needed to pass a bill. If the GOP conference unites around a CR that is detrimental but not deadly to Obamacare, the leadership team can probably expect to lose at least a dozen Republican votes, maybe more. When the dust settles, Boehner could ultimately afford to lose 18 Republican votes and still pass something, thanks to assistance from two Democrats – Utah Rep. Jim Matheson and North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre, who voted for the first CR and would almost surely do so again.
The possibility that Boehner could lose 18 votes may sound odd after Republicans a week ago passed their first CR with only one defection. But the small clutch of conservatives who regularly torment GOP leadership approved that CR only because Boehner caved to their demands – specifically that the CR include language to permanently defund Obamacare. If the second CR proposes anything less, the question won't be whether these conservatives jump ship – it will be how many go overboard with them.
TASTES LIKE CHICKEN
Despite bluster from some conservatives, they have largely refrained from absolutist statements that box them into any one position. The same cannot be said for the leadership of both parties – nor the White House.
Boehner all but ruled out passing the Senate's clean CR on Thursday, saying, "I don't see that happening."
Across the Capitol a few hours later, Reid promised that any GOP provision aimed at dismantling Obamacare – including a repeal of the medical device tax – would not pass the Senate. "To be absolutely clear," Reid said, "We are going to accept nothing that relates to Obamacare."
The president also has ruled out repealing the medical device tax. When asked Thursday whether such a provision would be acceptable in a final CR, White House press secretary Jay Carney replied, "No. Absolutely not."
These statements contribute to what can now be described as a high-stakes game of political chicken. And, at the end of the day, despite the many detailed scenarios swirling around Capitol Hill this weekend, the endgame ultimately boils down to this: Either one side blinks, or the government shuts down Tuesday morning.