September 18, 2013

So House GOP leaders just announced they will vote for a measure that funds the government at current sequester levels — but also defunds Obamacare — while also including a grab bag of other assorted goodies for conservatives.

“This is the most recent example of how Speaker Boehner has turned the people’s House over to the Tea Party extremists,” Dem Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a leading party strategist, told me. “He’s given the car keys to the most extreme elements of the Republican Party, and now they’re running the show in the House.”

Adding another wrinkle, Van Hollen said he was planning to go to the House Rules Committee to seek a vote on a year-long replacement for the sequester that would fund it at higher levels ($1.058 trillion). That won’t go anywhere, but it raises the possibility some Dems could withhold support for the eventual GOP bill that would fund the government at current levels ($988 billion), possibly making things harder for Republicans to get it through the House. “We’re going to continue to strongly oppose sequester levels,” Van Hollen said.

The new House GOP move doesn’t change the underlying dynamic here. But in procedural terms, it does set in motion a series of tactical skirmishes. Senate Dem aides tell me there are several ways they can proceed, among others:

1) Dems can vote down whatever continuing resolution Republicans produce defunding Obamacare, and leave it at that or send something back at current sequester levels. This would again place House Republicans in the position of having to pass something funding the government at current levels but without touching Obamacare, so Dems could accept it, which is also necessary to keeping the government open. This would mean they’d have to choose between alienating conservatives and getting blamed for a government shutdown — exactly the same position as before.

2) Dems can take whatever CR the House passes, amend it to get rid of the defunding of Obamacare, and jack up spending levels higher than sequester levels, to the levels in the Dem and White House budgets. This is unlikely at best, for the reasons I laid out the other day.

But if Dems did do this, House Republicans would obviously reject it. At that point they’d again be in the position of having to pass something funding the government at current levels but without touching Obamacare, so Dems could accept it, which is also necessary to keeping the government open. This would mean they’d have to choose between alienating conservatives and getting blamed for a government shutdown — exactly the same position as before.

3) Dems can take whatever CR the House passes, amend it to get rid of the Obamacare defunding, and change the length of the CR — so that it would fund the government for a shorter period than the GOP option. This would force another confrontation sooner, which some Dems want.

It’s hard to know how likely this third option is, but if Dems did do it, House Republicans would obviously reject it. At that point they’d again be in the position of having to pass something funding the government at current levels but without touching Obamacare, so Dems could accept it, which is also necessary to keeping the government open. This would mean they’d have to choose between alienating conservatives and getting blamed for a government shutdown — exactly the same position as before.

Careful readers will note that every one of those three options ends in exactly the same scenario.

“This doesn’t fundamentally change our plans and it just delays the day when House Republicans will have to pass (or at least help pass) a CR,” one Senate Dem leadership aide emails. “If they don’t, they will shut down the government. It’s that simple. All procedural roads in the Senate lead to a clean CR. There is no scenario in which we pass anything that defunds or delays Obamacare.”

As I noted this morning, there’s simply no reason to assume Democrats will ever give ground on anything that would seriously undermine Obamacare.

To be clear about what this means, all that has changed today is that GOP leaders have just confirmed they are not yet willing to face the inevitable reckoning that will take place when they admit House Republicans don’t have the leverage they need to block Obamacare. House GOP leaders have simply confirmed that they can’t overcome internal conservative demands for a Total War posture against the health law, and — for now, anyway — will continue to placate those demands, even though those leaders themselves think this posture is insane, unworkable, and self destructive.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.