House Republicans have orchestrated a master plan to avoid a government shutdown, delay the implementation of Obamacare, and maintain the current, post-sequester spending levels.
But first, they need the Senate to shred the very proposal that House conservatives have spent this week celebrating.
According to several Republican lawmakers and senior aides who described the plan on condition of anonymity, a strategy is coming into focus that, if properly executed, would accomplish multiple GOP policy objectives in one maneuver. With the deadline for a new continuing resolution looming on Oct. 1, and the House poised to pass a CR that will be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, sources are confident the strategy can work—but only if the dominoes fall in precise fashion.
The Republican plan, molded by leadership and some top conservatives, presupposes two things: First, the House passes a CR that funds the government through mid-December while permanently defunding Obamacare (Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, among others, expects an "overwhelming" victory on the House floor Friday); and second, the Senate promptly strips the anti-Obamacare language and sends back to the House a "clean" CR (Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the Republican ringleader of the anti-Obamacare drive, acknowledged Wednesday that the GOP proposal stands little chance in the Senate).
If all goes according to plan on these two fronts, the ball will be back in the House's court, and the threat of shutdown will be less than a week away. House Republicans, it has been assumed, will have two choices at that point: Either instruct leadership to hold their ground and send another anti-Obamacare CR to the Senate; or acknowledge their lack of leverage and pass the clean CR, hoping for another opportunity to fight Obamacare soon thereafter.
But sources familiar with the planning say House Speaker John Boehner is preparing a third option, one that keeps the government open at post-sequester spending levels while not conceding defeat on Obamacare. To accomplish this, the Republican leadership is planning to propose a debt-ceiling package—perhaps as early as next week—that has as its centerpiece a one-year delay of President Obama's health care law.
Meanwhile, House leadership would supplement the revised CR with some assortment of conservative policy provisions (such as a "conscience clause" for health care coverage, or a verification system for insurance subsidies). Adding such items, the thinking goes, would secure sufficient support from skeptical House Republicans while not antagonizing enough Democrats to derail passage in the Senate.
Top Republicans say shifting their anti-Obamacare efforts from the CR to the debt ceiling is smart strategy and sound politics. For one thing, conservatives now realize that delaying Obamacare—as opposed to repealing or defunding it—represents their best shot at scoring a health care victory. Also, Boehner can honestly tell his members that he did everything he could to defund Obamacare in the CR. And, at the end of the day, Republicans still believe their leverage will be maximized when negotiating the nation's borrowing limit.
But timing is everything. If Boehner's debt-ceiling plan isn't presented in close proximity to the Senate's defeat of the House CR, Republican aides worry that conservatives could grow restless and orchestrate another CR battle over Obamacare. But if the debt-ceiling proposal is introduced just as the Senate is sending back its clean CR, Boehner can combine the separate skirmishes and sell his plan as a two-step solution to the challenge that has galvanized conservatives: how to defeat Obamacare without shutting down the government.
"It's all one battle," said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, a leading House conservative who is vice chairman of the Budget Committee.
Some details of the strategy are still being hashed out, and not all members are aware of the plan. But broadly speaking, conservatives seem receptive to the concept of combining the fall's two major fiscal fights.
"Speaker Boehner has said several times that there are other options.... We're listening to them to see what those options are," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. Labrador added: "At this point we're in a 'trust but verify' moment where we're trusting our leadership [but] we're asking them to tell us what that next move is going to be."
"The goal, the ultimate outcome that we desire, is that the American people don't have to live under this law," Price said. "Whether it's on the CR, whether it's on the debt ceiling, it's all the same battle. Nobody should be wedded to one tactic to get something done."