September 18, 2013

We will know more about the House GOP’s approach to Obamacare, the continuing resolution to keep the government operating and the debt ceiling after the Republican conference meets today. It is important to keep in mind where all the players started so we can later assess the changes and the degree to which the parties are getting off track.

Students attend a Defund Obamacare rally in Tennessee. (Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post)
Students attend a Defund Obamacare rally in Tennessee. (Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post)

To be clear, the GOP leadership has always considered the debt ceiling, not the CR, to be the place most appropriate to use its leverage. First, if the CR gets passed the threat of a government shutdown and the risk the GOP will be blamed for it goes away.

The flip side of this is that when it comes to the debt ceiling the White House, as we saw in 2011, is under much more pressure to strike a deal. No wonder the president defiantly insist that he “won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling.” If the hard liners agree to this approach, that is using the debt ceiling as the vehicle for a deal, that’s a win for GOP leadership.

It is also important to keep in mind that what the House sends over to the Senate to start the bidding isn’t all that critical. If the hard liners want to lard it up with Obamacare defunding and every other shiny object, there is little downside. What is critical is what the Senate does with it and how the House responds to whatever comes back. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and the other members of the shutdown squad don’t have a lot of allies. Unless something changes, there aren’t enough R’s to block a CR that doesn’t include their pet defunding plan. What comes back to the House therefore will in all likelihood not have a defunding measure. At that point the real fight will occur: Can the GOP leadership get 218 votes to keep the government running and then pivot to the debt/Obamacare showdown?

Then the familiar drill will repeat itself. The White House will press for closed door negotiations. The House will insist on regular order. And then we are back to a three-sided face-off and a real test for Senate Dems. Will they stick by the “no changes on Obamacare” edict from the White House or will there be a deal in there.

The country’s credit rating is a tough bargaining chip to play since neither side wants to use it. But the president’s desperation to get rid of the sequester is an actual point of leverage for the GOP. What can Republicans get for it? Ideally, a delay in Obamacare, but maybe they could at least snag a real down payment on entitlement reform or a domestic development energy bill.

In short, what happens today and in the first House volley to the Senate are not all that relevant. What matters is what the House can extract later on.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.