October 15, 2013
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), left, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). ( Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), left, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

So House Republican leaders have climbed way down from their earlier demands to gut Obamacare, but the fight over the shutdown and the debt ceiling is not quite finished.

The rough state of play goes like this: House Republican leaders seem to be on the verge of buying into most of the nearly done Senate deal to open the government through Jan. 15 and extend the debt ceiling to Feb. 7 — but they want some extra concessions: a two-year delay in the medical-device tax that is part of the financing for Obamacare, and a variation on the amendment named after Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) to end subsidies for the health insurance purchased by House and Senate members on the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges. (The GOP is no longer insisting on the huge pay cut for congressional staffers that taking away their health-insurance subsidies would represent.)

The problem here is that Senate negotiators agreed to drop the medical-device tax delay as part of a final settlement. The assumption has been that the tax eventually would be replaced through a larger agreement negotiated as part of future budget talks. Senate Democrats and the White House do not want a major concession of this sort tied to what they still insist should be a relatively straightforward measure to open the government and authorize payment of its debt.

Democrats also suspect that  House Speaker John Boehner’s proposal is merely an effort to derail productive talks between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). They were circulating a tweet by Bloomberg News’ Michael Tackett reporting that “GOP lawmakers say Boehner described [S]enate bill as a hand grenade coming at the House, and the House had to send one first.”

Nor is it clear yet that Boehner can get this new approach through the House, since it does represent a very large step away from the tea party’s Obamacare demands. House Democrats, in the meantime, are not inclined to help Boehner scuttle what they saw as a reasonable deal emerging in the Senate. Senate Republicans may delay reaching agreement with Senate Democrats until they see if Boehner can get his latest proposal through the House. UPDATE (11:45 a.m.): Late this morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others in the House Democratic leadership gave voice to the Democrats’ anger, accusing Boehner of trying to “sabotage” the negotiations in the Senate. Pelosi also noted that Boehner’s relative vagueness in an earlier news conference showed that he lacked the votes to get it through the House.

This is a moving target, but it is clear that House Republicans seem to be searching for a way out of the political fiasco their Obamacare demands created. But they still don’t seem ready to make a clean exit — and Boehner’s reported talk of a negotiated settlement as a “hand grenade” is not encouraging. This could still gum up efforts to move Washington back to something closer to normal.

Second update (5:23 p.m.):
This story just gets stranger and stranger. It’s beginning to feel as if the House is having the legislative equivalent of a nervous breakdown.

After Republican leaders failed to muster support for their earlier proposal, they are floating a new one that would reopen the government until Dec. 15, while extending the debt limit to Feb. 7. They have dropped efforts to delay the medical-device tax but would extend the Vitter rule. The proposal they are discussing would eliminate government (i.e., employer) contributions to the health insurance costs of lawmakers, their staffs and White House officials. The bill they’re writing would forbid the Treasury Department from using “extraordinary measures” to avoid hitting the debt ceiling.

The second is just bad government. Of course the Treasury should be able to protect the country’s credit. And the first is a true outrage. Depriving modestly paid congressional and White House staff members of employer contributions to health insurance would amount to a deep pay cut — estimated at $5,000 to $7,000 a year for those with individual coverage and $11,000 or $12,000 for those with family coverage. Playing symbolic politics at the expense of those who work for you is shameful. Here’s hoping that what amounts to an act of political selfishness never becomes law.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”