A Viewer’s Guide to the Shutdown Showdown

With Republicans huddling and scenarios swirling, here’s your cheat-sheet on what to watch for this weekend.

With the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate at an impasse, Congress continues to struggle over how to fund the government and prevent a possible shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, early Friday, Sept. 27, 2013.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
Sept. 28, 2013, 2 a.m.

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.

ADDING PRO­VI­SIONS

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.

WRECK-IT RE­PUB­LIC­ANS

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.

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