GOP’s First Big Obamacare Repeal Hurdle: Passing a Budget

If they want to use reconciliation to repeal the health law, House and Senate Republicans will have to do what they couldn’t this year—agree on a spending blueprint.

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., right, speaks with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif. during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, following a House Republican leadership meeting.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
Nov. 20, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

With their leadership team firmly in place, Congressional Republicans are looking to 2017 to form a unified front and roll back much of President Obama’s legacy. But first they have revisit one of their biggest internal fights of 2016.

Republicans failed to pass a budget earlier this year over a dispute about how much money to spend. But if Republicans want to repeal Obamacare next year, they have to pass a budget first.

That’s because the easiest path to an Obamacare repeal lies in a procedure called reconciliation. It would allow the Senate to bypass the 60-vote filibuster threshold, instead requiring only a simple majority vote, and Republicans will likely control 52 seats in the Senate. But it can only be initiated if the chambers first pass a budget which includes a line item instructing committees to change current law to bring it in line with the budget.

The House GOP’s proposed fiscal 2017 budget included a line to that effect, repealing Obamacare in theory and instructing committees to pass legislation to repeal it in practice. However, conservatives objected to the budget’s $1.07 trillion price tag, so it was never brought to the House floor for a vote. It’s unclear whether those objections remain, and whether leadership will try to push the same budget or come to the table with something new.

“We haven’t made any decisions,” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in an interview. “We’re working to see what we can do in the House. We’ve got to look and work with the Senate, work with the administration. What’s the best way forward?”

Even though they failed to pass a budget this year, Senate Republicans think they can get one through in 2017. “It’s never easy to pass a budget, and it probably won’t be easy to pass a budget next time, but I think we need to and I think we will,” Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the GOP leadership, told National Journal.

Blunt said Republicans will look to use the process to pass a health care overhaul and “maybe even” a tax bill. He noted that Republicans passed a budget in 2015, which Congress used to send legislation repealing the Affordable Care Act to President Obama’s desk. Obama vetoed that bill, as expected, but it sent a message. Republicans now look to do more than just that under President Trump.

“We’re going to repeal Obamacare,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the second-highest ranking Republican in the chamber. “We just need to be thoughtful and careful in how we deal with that.”

If Republicans want to use reconciliation for both health care and taxes, they will have to pass two budgets, one for fiscal 2017 and another for fiscal 2018. But with time running short this Congress, members are doubtful that they can pass the 2017 budget before the end of December.

Interestingly, however, the work on the budget that was supposed to be passed this year might be able wait until next year. Typically a fiscal 2017 budget would be passed in calendar 2016. But congressional leaders are talking to their parliamentarian to find out if they can pass a fiscal 2017 budget after the new year under the premise that they are still in fiscal 2017. Since they plan to pass a continuing resolution through March, they are not wedded to any economic numbers for the balance of the fiscal year, which ends in September.

Still, congressional leaders will have to overcome objections from conservatives. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, who was one of the main opponents of the budget, said it is possible they could lift their objections for two reasons: Because Trump would likely sign off on their priorities and because Congress is preparing to pass a continuing resolution, rather than an omnibus bill.

“I think there’s that chance, but we haven’t discussed that,” Jordan said. “Before we left for the election, we were advocating a CR that got us into next year.”

That, said some members, is the biggest unknown factor in the whole discussion. It is clear that even though moderate members and appropriators want to pass an omnibus, they will go along with a CR to help smooth the process. But Rep. Charlie Dent, an appropriator, said they would need the compliance of conservatives to move ahead on a budget.

“How do you pass reconciliation? Well, the folks who said they couldn’t vote for a budget at $1.07 trillion have to figure out a way to vote for it. That’s the problem,” Dent said.

For their part, leadership is hoping that the prospect of repealing Obamacare would supersede any budgetary problems that have concerned conservatives. House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, who also authored an Obamacare replacement bill and is being considered for Health and Human Services Secretary in the Trump administration, said he and leadership are working toward that end.

“We’re having discussions from folks all across the conference. And it’s a work in progress,” he said. “President-elect Trump will actually sign the reconciliation legislation that we put on his desk, which is a wonderful thing.”

Alex Rogers and Jason Plautz contributed to this article.
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