Inside the GOP's big new plan to take down ObamaCare

Forget a government shutdown. The new rumored strategy would hold the country's credit rating hostage in an effort to defund the health-care law.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) along with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) on March
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

With crucial pieces of the Affordable Care Act set to kick in later this year, some conservative lawmakers have been trying to rally support within the party to shut down the government to block the law, or to force President Obama to scrap it.

That threat — a refusal to pass a budget (or in D.C. jargon, a "continuing resolution") to fund the government until ObamaCare is defeated — hasn't gained traction with the party at large. Yet now, multiple reports say the thinking inside the GOP is to shift the ObamaCare battle from the budget fight to another looming fall showdown: The debt ceiling. (For a refresher, read the Guardian's helpful history of the debt ceiling here.)

From the Washington Examiner's Conn Carroll:

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House leadership firmly believes that attaching anything "new" to a continuing resolution is politically untenable, while passing a higher debt limit, without attaching anything new, is also politically impossible. Hence the House leadership's desire to fight ObamaCare through the debt limit, but not the CR.

The plan is to pass a 60-day CR extension that keeps discretionary spending at the existing sequestration levels. Then House leadership wants to combine Democratic desires to roll-back sequestration with conservative desires to delay/defund ObamaCare into the debt limit fight. [Washington Examiner]

A government shutdown, besides failing to actually defund ObamaCare, has the potential to be politically disastrous for the GOP. Republicans bore the brunt of public rage over the government shutdown in 1995 when they refused to bargain with President Clinton, and they would likely suffer the same fate should they go that route again now. No wonder conservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer have labeled the strategy "really dumb."

Though the impact of a debt ceiling standoff is tougher to predict, the fallout would be more economic than political, potentially sparing the GOP on that front. Still, if the debt ceiling isn't raised — meaning the U.S. couldn't borrow more money to pay its existing debts, thus threatening the nation's credit rating — the fiscal consequences for the country could be catastrophic. That's why this gambit would represent a "massive escalation" in the ObamaCare funding showdown, argues New York's Jonathan Chait.

Closing the federal government for a limited period would have mostly political consequences (probably for the Republicans). The substantive effects build up cumulatively and start to really harm the economy after weeks on end, but the two sides could negotiate through a shutdown.

The debt ceiling is another story. The effects of missing the deadline would be immediate and, while unpredictable, potentially very large and irreversible. That's why Obama now insists, after disastrously allowing himself to be extorted in 2011, he won't negotiate the debt ceiling, but has never made an analogous pledge about a continuing resolution. [New York Magazine]

Unlike the very vocal threat to shut down the government over ObamaCare, the latest rumored standoff is, for now, merely rumblings from behind closed doors. And there's at least some reason to believe it will amount to no more than an empty threat in the end.

The Republican leadership has been increasingly under pressure to appease the right wing of the party. Publicly insisting that ObamaCare funding will be fought further down the road would soothe the demand for that fight in the first place, while kicking the can down the road, perhaps indefinitely.

As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent points out, this is exactly what happened with the last debt ceiling fight. In January, Boehner said the upcoming sequester debate, not debt ceiling fight, gave the GOP its best position to push for major budget cuts. Yet the sequester came and went without the GOP winning those deep concessions.

There's some reason to think the same dynamic is at play here, too. The health care exchanges mandated under the ACA go into effect October 1. If Republicans really try to defund ObamaCare during the debt ceiling talks, they will, in effect, be arguing a settled debate.

Here's Sargent:

So now, under this emerging plan, Republicans would be moving to demand a delay in ObamaCare's implementation — after the exchanges kick in — in exchange for not allowing the country to go into default, even though Boehner himself has already admitted the debt limit must be raised to avoid putting the full faith and credit of the U.S. at risk?

What all of this comes down to is that GOP leaders need to decide if they are going to level with their base, and acknowledge that blocking ObamaCare by using this fall's confrontations as leverage is just a nonstarter, period, full stop — whether we're talking about a government shutdown, the debt limit, or whatever. [Washington Post]

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.