Feature

Shutting down the government over Obamacare

The federal government ground to a halt, after Republicans refused to continue funding it unless the health-care law was defunded or delayed.

What happened The federal government ground to a halt this week for the first time in 17 years, after Republicans in Congress refused to continue funding it unless President Obama’s signature health-care law was defunded or delayed. The partial shutdown began on Oct. 1, after the Senate rejected an 11th-hour bill passed by the House to fund the government if the Affordable Care Act was delayed for one year. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ruled out any negotiations to weaken Obamacare, saying it had already been passed by Congress, survived Supreme Court review, and been ratified by Obama’s 2012 re-election. “They’ve lost their minds,’’ Reid said of the GOP. “We will not go to conference with a gun to our heads.”

As some government services were halted, each party tried to blame the other for the crisis. In a speech in which he was flanked by uninsured people with pre-existing conditions, President Obama called the Republican demands an “ideological crusade to deny affordable health insurance to millions of Americans.” Republicans said the president and Senate Democrats caused the shutdown by refusing to compromise. “The president says, ‘I’m not going to negotiate,’” House Speaker John Boehner said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

What the editorials said This is “John Boehner’s shutdown,” said The New York Times. If he had allowed a floor vote on a “clean” funding resolution to keep the government open, with no “ridiculous demands,” it would have passed with a strong majority because most Republicans are keenly “aware of how badly this collapse will damage their party.” But out of fear of angering 30 to 50 Tea Partiers, Boehner cynically is playing a destructive game he knows Republicans cannot win—proving conclusively that he and his party are “incapable of governing.”

House Republicans are now trapped in a mess of their own making, said The Wall Street Journal. If they relent and pass a clean bill, the hard-liners will “denounce them as sellouts.” But with polls showing that the public disapproves of using a shutdown to stop Obamacare by a 2-to-1 margin, a prolonged shutdown could badly damage the GOP heading into the 2014 midterms. Repealing Obamacare is not possible until Republicans win some elections.

What the columnists said A partial shutdown hardly represents “an unrivaled constitutional crisis,” said Charles C.W. Cooke in NationalReview.com. Former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill—beloved by liberals for his supposed knack for bipartisan compromise—shut down the government eight times during the Reagan administration. “Shutdowns are caused by legitimate and welcome disagreement between equal branches,” and are resolved only when both sides compromise. Obamacare is already a mess and should be delayed. “What stands out here is not the shutdown itself, but the president and Harry Reid’s public refusal even to engage with Republicans.”

Republicans aren’t interested in negotiation, said Ezra Klein in The Washington Post. Compromise requires sacrifice from both parties, but in return for their demand to gut health-care reform, Republicans aren’t willing to give up anything of value to them. Agreeing to fund the government, or to raise the debt ceiling in two weeks, isn’t making a concession—“it’s releasing a hostage.” And that hostage is the U.S. economy. This is pure power politics, said William Saletan in Slate.com, and the standoff will end only when public anger grows and “the GOP decides to cut its losses.”

This fight goes way beyond health care, said Jonathan Cohn in NewRepublic.com.It’s a “crisis of political legitimacy.” The far right doesn’t believe Obama or the Democrats have any right to govern at all; in that context, it’s perfectly acceptable to shut down the government or refuse to raise the debt ceiling to undo the results of democratic elections. “But Tea Party Republicans don’t have to speak for the whole party.” As many as 175 House Republicans would reportedly be prepared to vote for a clean bill. John Boehner has a duty to put the Tea Partiers in their place before they do real harm to the country, even if it sparks a challenge to his leadership. “It will mean taking political risks, but that’s what leaders do.”

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