RSS
Why House Republicans are pushing toward a government shutdown
Obama won't delay or 'defund' ObamaCare. The law takes another toehold on October 1. What is the GOP thinking?
House Speaker John Boehner will likely have the final shot Monday to avert a government shutdown — but he's not likely to take it. 
House Speaker John Boehner will likely have the final shot Monday to avert a government shutdown  but he's not likely to take it.  (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A

t the stroke of midnight on October 1, the U.S. government will run out of budgetary authority to spend money — in other words, the federal government will shut down. It won't close up shop completely — some number of employees deemed "essential" will keep on working, for IOUs — but it would be needlessly costly, annoy most Americans, and inflict actual hardship on others, notably federal employees and military personnel.

What is Congress thinking?

Both chambers of Congress have passed legislation funding the government through mid-December. The Democrat-led Senate's version of this continuing resolution (CR) doesn't include any amendments about the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare. The GOP-led House has passed two versions: The first would strip all funding for implementing ObamaCare and the second, approved early Sunday on a party-line vote, would delay the law for a year.

The new House CR, like the one before it, is a nonstarter with Senate Democrats and the White House. Here's what the House GOP is now asking for to keep the government running:

  • A one-year delay of ObamaCare's individual mandate and health-care exchanges
  • Full repeal of a medical-devices tax that helps finance ObamaCare
  • Pay for troops even if the government shuts down
  • Repeal of a provision mandating that most employers cover employee contraception

What is the GOP's argument?

Republicans spent Sunday arguing that that these conditions are a compromise, and that any government shutdown will be the Democrats' fault. "It is the Democrats who have taken the absolutist position," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Sunday. "My position in this fight was we should defund it, which is different from repeal. And even now what the House of Representatives has done is a step removed from defunding. It's delaying. Now, that's the essence of a compromise."

Even some Republicans are fed up, however, with the demands. "I disagree with the strategy of linking ObamaCare with the continuing functioning of government — a strategy that cannot possibly work," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Sunday.

What is the Democrat's argument?

Democrats look at the negotiations like this: Republicans are holding the federal government hostage to try to kill or inflict maximum damage on a law passed by Congress more than three years ago, upheld by the Supreme Court, and essentially ratified by voters in Obama's re-election a year ago. Democrats control the White House and the Senate. Delaying the law for a year would upset years of planning by the government and health insurers, send premiums sharply higher, and cover a sharply lower number of people. It's not going to happen.

What happens next?

In a calculated show of nonurgency, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined to call the Senate into session on Sunday. The Senate will almost certainly send a "clean" CR back to the House on Monday, with all add-ons stripped out. Everybody knew this would happen.

So now, predictably, "the decision whether to keep the government open will fall squarely on House Speaker John Boehner," says John Dickerson at Slate. The Ohio Republican can bring the clean Senate bill up for a vote in the House, letting it pass without support from a majority of his caucus, or he can "permit the shutdown to go forward, as a way to pressure the White House and satisfy his most conservative members."

It appears that Boehner will try for a Plan C. "We will not shut the government down," House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R—Calif.) said on Fox News Sunday. "If we have to negotiate a little longer, we will continue to negotiate." What that means in practice is that House Republicans will quickly send back the Senate bill with some "fundamental changes" to ObamaCare that "I believe the Senate can accept," McCarthy added.

What kind of changes? One idea is that House Republicans will insist on repealing the medical-devices tax, which even some Democrats don't like — but would add $29 billion to the deficit over 10 years. The other plan would eliminate government subsidies for the health care of members of Congress and their staff, a measure proposed by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

The House leadership "thinks that a final CR with Vitter's language would put them on solid political ground, even if Senate Democrats resist," says Robert Costa at National Review. "In that scenario, and the government shut down, Republicans would argue that Democrats shut down the government to protect their perks."

This strategy has people scratching their heads. "What if Senate Democrats just agree to the CR with the Vitter Amendment and it becomes law?" asks Josh Barro at Business Insider. "That's a disaster for Republicans."

House Republican staffers are already furious with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and the outside conservative groups that have forced them to turn these CR negotiations into a fight over ObamaCare.... If a CR with the Vitter Amendment becomes law, the upshot will be that Cruz hijacked the House's legislative process over the CR, ObamaCare is still being funded, and all Republicans have to show for it is a staff pay cut of several thousand dollars.... Republicans will try to direct staff anger toward the Democrats, but the name of the person responsible is right there on the amendment: Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), one of Cruz's allies in the defunding fight. [Business Insider]

Some conservatives argue that even if the House gets its way with delaying ObamaCare, that's a disaster, too. The House's new gambit "violates the most basic principle of negotiation," says John Hinderaker at PowerLine: "You should bargain for something that (1) you want, and (2) there is a chance you might get." Republicans shouldn't give Democrats another year to get their health-care law in shape, he argues. "ObamaCare is a disaster that will crash on takeoff," and the GOP should let it.

The saving grace, I suppose, is that there is zero chance the Senate will agree to postpone ObamaCare. But, then again, what is the point? Democrats will accuse Republicans of playing political games, and they will be more or less correct. [PowerLine]

What does the GOP stand to gain from a shutdown?

Leaders of both parties swear they don't want a government shutdown, but time is running out fast and Republicans are insisting on concessions they know the Democrats won't make.

"Why have House Republicans pursued their effort to defund, and now to delay, ObamaCare so relentlessly, even though they have almost zero chance of success in the face of a rapidly approaching deadline for shutting down the government?" asks Byron York at The Washington Examiner. He gets an answer from Tea Party stalwart Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). She's "one of the most vocal of the defund/delay advocates," York says, and "it's safe to say her views reflected those of many of her conservative colleagues."

York paraphrases Bachmann's main points:

One, ObamaCare as a policy is so far-reaching, so consequential, and so damaging that members of Congress should do everything they can — everything — to stop it before it fully goes into effect. Two, lesser measures to fight ObamaCare — repealing the medical device tax or making Congress purchase coverage through the exchanges without special subsidies — are just not big enough to address the problem. And three, there have been government shutdowns in the past over far less urgent reasons that did not result in doom for Republicans. [Washington Examiner]

Once the health-care exchanges open for business on Tuesday, and people start signing up for real insurance plans, the law will gain another crucial toehold. This is a now-or-never moment for its critics, and the potentially low political costs make the fight a no-brainer. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) gives another reason to The Wall Street Journal: "There are too many people who campaigned on this issue to do everything they could to get rid of this bad law or postpone it."

Another, slightly cynical way of rephrasing that: Compromising isn't good for business. Until recently, members of Congress relied heavily on contributions from lobbyists, trade groups, and other outside organizations that "tended toward legislative deal making, often at the expense of broader ideologies," explains Lisa Mascaro in the Los Angeles Times. Those groups still exist, "but their clout has been eclipsed by groups that thrive on ideologically polarizing issues," and for them, "the shutdown threat is a windfall."

The looming shutdown may benefit individual GOP lawmakers, but it will almost certainly be a disaster for the Republican Party, says David Frum at The Daily Beast. So why charge toward another defeat?

The short answer is a breakdown in the party's ability to govern itself. It can't think strategically. Even when pressed to do something overwhelmingly likely to end in disaster, as this shutdown looks likely to do for Republicans, the party has no way to stop itself. It stumbles into fights it cannot win, gets mad, and then in its anger lurches into yet another fight that ends in yet another loss.... Out of these spasms, ObamaCare looks sturdier than ever — and any hope of negotiating to fix its worst elements seemingly further out of reach than ever. [Daily Beast]

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week