With Shutdown Looming, House GOP Split over Obamacare Strategy

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., right, walk to a Republican caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
Sept. 26, 2013, 11:58 a.m.

House Re­pub­lic­ans are di­vided over wheth­er to pur­sue a debt-ceil­ing vote be­fore or after act­ing on the Sen­ate’s re­vised con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion, a tac­tic­al di­lemma that has law­makers fly­ing blind in­to a crit­ic­al week­end of work that will either avert — or ush­er in — a gov­ern­ment shut­down.

Sev­er­al hours after a House GOP meet­ing in which Speak­er John Boehner de­tailed his debt-ceil­ing pro­pos­al — which fea­tures a one-year delay of Obama­care im­ple­ment­a­tion — con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers gathered in the same meet­ing space, in the Cap­it­ol base­ment, for the weekly meet­ing of the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee. Law­makers emer­ging from that meet­ing de­scribed the dia­logue as tense, with sev­er­al mem­bers protest­ing the idea of pro­ceed­ing with a vote on Boehner’s debt-ceil­ing pack­age be­fore know­ing what comes next in the CR ne­go­ti­ations.

Ac­cord­ing to sources in the room, Rep. Raul Lab­rador of Idaho was among the mem­bers baffled at the idea of ex­ped­it­ing a debt-ceil­ing vote. At one point Lab­rador singled out Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, who was in at­tend­ance, and asked point-blank: “Why the heck would we vote on the debt-ceil­ing be­fore the Sen­ate sends us their CR?”

Can­tor replied: “No de­cisions have been made.”

This ex­change high­lights the grow­ing angst among Re­pub­lic­ans as the cam­paign to di­min­ish Obama­care reaches its most crit­ic­al stage. Some con­ser­vat­ives are vehe­mently op­posed to the idea of push­ing any debt-ceil­ing deal be­fore they first ex­ecute a re­turn vol­ley on the CR. Since the House ini­tially passed a ‘de­fund Obama­care’ meas­ure, they ar­gue, why should it sud­denly pass a ‘delay Obama­care’ pro­vi­sion be­fore ever re­ceiv­ing a re­sponse to its open­ing tender?

“It’s not how you ne­go­ti­ate,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.

Can­tor wasn’t at­tempt­ing to mol­li­fy his right flank, however; sources say the lead­er­ship team truly has not de­cided on how to pro­ceed. Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy’s team began tal­ly­ing debt-ceil­ing votes soon after Thursday’s meet­ing, but that ef­fort was com­plic­ated by some mem­bers re­fus­ing to com­mit on the debt-ceil­ing plan un­til in­formed of the pre­cise se­quence of votes. Of course, that se­quence can’t be de­cided un­til lead­er­ship knows where mem­bers stand — which is what Mc­Carthy’s team is now strug­gling to de­term­ine.

Fur­ther com­plic­at­ing these tac­tic­al de­lib­er­a­tions is swell­ing un­cer­tainty over when, ex­actly, the Sen­ate will send the House its re­vised CR. Re­pub­lic­ans in the House ex­pressed an ar­ray of ex­pect­a­tions on Thursday — some whispered about Fri­day morn­ing, oth­ers pre­dicted Sunday night — but this swirl­ing spec­u­la­tion only un­der­scored the vis­cer­al ap­pre­hen­sion head­ing in­to the week­end.

“We’re hear­ing a hun­dred dif­fer­ent things,” Rep. Kev­in Brady, R-Texas, said of the Sen­ate’s CR time­frame.

Re­gard­less of tim­ing, many mem­bers voiced frus­tra­tion in the RSC meet­ing over the debt-ceil­ing pro­pos­al it­self. Spe­cific­ally, con­ser­vat­ives were baffled that Boehner spelled out the pro­vi­sions of the bill without present­ing a “score” that de­tails a pre­cise sum of spend­ing cuts and sav­ings. Sev­er­al law­makers, in fact, said they would not vote for the pro­pos­al — re­gard­less of tim­ing — un­til they see the bill scored.

(The le­gis­la­tion, which has yet to be form­ally in­tro­duced, meas­ured eco­nom­ic growth but did not tab­u­late ex­act sav­ings.)

Adding to this mount­ing mal­aise amid an ac­tion-packed day at the Cap­it­ol was an eye­brow-rais­ing sen­ti­ment, ex­pressed by some GOP aides, that the latest set­back for Obama­care — a re­por­ted delay in on­line en­roll­ment for cer­tain health care ex­changes — could ac­tu­ally in­centiv­ize a brief shut­down in the eyes of some mem­bers.

If Tues­day ar­rives without a budget deal, some con­ser­vat­ives spec­u­late, me­dia cov­er­age of the gov­ern­ment shut­down will co­in­cide with a “dis­astrous” rol­lout of the Obama­care ex­changes. At that point, these mem­bers be­lieve, their cam­paign to de­feat Obama­care would sud­denly be jus­ti­fied in the eyes of the pub­lic and the flaws of the health care law would be ex­posed — even at the ex­pense of a brief, cho­reo­graphed shut­down.

Of course, the vast ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans are de­term­ined to avoid a shut­down. But a small fac­tion of con­ser­vat­ives have long down­played the po­ten­tial dam­age to the GOP brand.

“The gov­ern­ment shuts down every week­end. They shut down every hol­i­day,” Rep. Tim Huel­skamp of Kan­sas told Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently. “So a couple of days of shut­down…”

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