Wonkbook: Obamacare is driving the GOP off a cliff

September 13, 2013

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

In 2010, congressional Democrats lost a lot of seats as a consequences of voting for Obamacare. The expectation was that much the same might happen in 2014, as the GOP took advantage of the various glitches and hiccups sure to manifest during the roll-out.

But congressional Republicans are increasingly worried that Obamacare is going to lead them to losses -- or at least stand in the way of key wins -- come 2014.

The issue isn't that Obamacare is suddenly popular. It's not. But it's so unpopular among Republicans that the party's right flank is embracing desperate and destructive tactics to oppose it.

Consider this sentence from today's Times: "Just five scheduled legislative days stand between the House and a government shutdown that has loomed for months. As of now, Republican leaders appear to have no idea how to stop it."

The reason they have no idea how to stop it? Obamacare. Conservatives are refusing to fund the government if that funding includes the money intended for the Affordable Care Act. So Obamacare might lead the GOP to force an unnecessary and unpopular government shutdown -- one that even most members of their party don't support.

And after the government-funding deadline, of course, comes the debt ceiling. There, Republican leadership is arguing that the deal should be a year of debt-ceiling increase for a year of Obamacare delay. The Obama administration obviously won't go for that -- in fact, they say they won't negotiate over the debt ceiling at all -- so GOP leaders will need to find a way out of that promise.

But what if they can't manage that legislative two-step? What if they actually cause a debt ceiling breach, and take the blame for the resulting economic chaos, and the permanently higher borrowing costs?

The GOP's strategy for ending Obamacare has gone from "repeal-and-replace" to "shutdown-and-default." That's a disaster for their party -- and the leadership knows it. Obamacare has begun working politically for the Democrats, but not in a way that anybody ever expected.


(Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 10. That's the number of days the FBI will shut down next year to meet budget cuts. Stay safe, everybody, while your government goes insane. 

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: How people argue with research they don’t like.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) Syria, Syria, Syria; 2) here we go again, political crisis over fiscal non-crisis; 3) runners taper, not central banks; 4) Medicaid to expand in Pennsylvania; and 5) breaking terrorism news.

1) Top story: Syria is already backtracking on its promises to cooperate

Elite Syrian unit scatters chemical-weapons stockpile. "A secretive Syrian military unit at the center of the Assad regime's chemical weapons program has been moving stocks of poison gases and munitions to as many as 50 sites to make them harder for the U.S. to track, according to American and Middle Eastern officials. The movements of chemical weapons by Syria's elite Unit 450 could complicate any U.S. bombing campaign in Syria over its alleged chemical attacks, officials said. It also raises questions about implementation of a Russian proposal that calls for the regime to surrender control of its stockpile, they said." Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, and Nour Malas in The Wall Street Journal.

Kerry: U.S. ready to strike if Syria deal not reached. "Assad, in an interview with a Russian television station, said he is prepared to sign the international convention banning the weapons and would adhere to its “standard procedure” of handing over stockpile data a month later. Kerry made clear that he had a much shorter time frame in mind and that Assad was not a party to the negotiations. “There is nothing ‘standard’ about this process,” Kerry said as he headed into an initial meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov." Anne Gearan and Karen DeYoung in The Washington Post.

@JohnJHarwood: Carney joins Kerry is leaving wiggle room to avoid US use of military force against Syria even if diplomatic effort to secure CW fails

Disarmament talks begin on shaky ground. "The U.S. and Russia began efforts to dismantle Syria's chemical arms network, building on an uncertain pledge by President Bashar al-Assad to join the international treaty banning the use and production of such weapons. But Moscow's ability to control Mr. Assad as the disarmament process moves forward emerged as a major issue Thursday, after the Syrian leader said he would hold up plans to surrender his chemical weapons unless the Obama administration stopped threatening to use military force if Damascus didn't comply...In another potential wrinkle to talks, Syria's ambassador to the United Nations reiterated a longstanding call for Israel to declare its presumed nuclear-weapons arsenal and to put it under international supervision." Jay Solomon in The Wall Street Journal.

Watch: Kerry's comments. The New York Times.

Geneva talks mark big test for US and Russia. "The decisions of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations on how to handle Syria's chemical weapons now hinge on two days of meetings starting Thursday between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The meetings, to be held in Geneva, will represent Moscow's effort to reclaim a superpower's role on the world stage, while the Obama administration is looking for a way to defuse a showdown without being embarrassed either by losing a vote in Congress or the U.N. on action in Syria." Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee in The Wall Street Journal.

@strobetalbott: Bush43 stuck with the script come hell or high water on Iraq. Obama does improv on Syria. Both approaches have their up & downsides.

Syria takes steps to join chemical-weapons treaty. "President Bashar al-Assad of Syria announced publicly that his country had formally applied to join the chemical weapons treaty. According to the treaty’s terms, Syria would be required to submit a declaration detailing the types, quantities and locations of all its chemical weapons and the locations of all facilities for producing them within 60 days of formally joining the accord." Michael R. Gordon and Steven Lee Myers in The New York Times.

@markknoller: Spokesperson for @AmbassadorPower says to be credible, Syria needs to take immediate actions to disclose, surrender, and eliminate its CW's.

UN report on Syria coming soon. "The secretary general of the United Nations could receive a widely awaited report on Monday, or possibly earlier, on last month’s mass killing in Syria that is believed to have involved chemical weapons, diplomats said Thursday. Some said they expected the findings would point unambiguously to Syrian government culpability...[D]iplomats and arms control experts who are knowledgeable about both the type and volume of evidence the inspectors amassed in Syria said they believed the report would be a meticulously detailed account that would lead readers to draw the conclusion that only the Syrian military forces could have carried out such an attack, which asphyxiated hundreds of civilians." Rick Gladstone in The New York Times.

Interview: Russia’s position on Syria is all about constraining AmericaBrad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Why Obama shouldn’t care about backing down on Syria. "The problem with this line of reasoning is that there's a severe lack of evidence for it. Douglas Gibler at the University of Alabama presents a good review of the literature here. Paul Huth (now at Maryland) and Bruce Russett (Yale) analyzed 54 historical cases and concluded, "deterrence success is not systematically associated…with the defender's firmness or lack of it in previous crises." A follow-up study they conducted looking at 58 cases also found little evidence that countries' past behavior had a strong effect on other countries' perceptions of it, especially in modern cases." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

ISRAEL: A transmission back to disingenuous Vladimir. "[M]ay I address you, the people of Russia? My objective has always been focused on one thing: deterring and degrading Syria's chemical weapons capabilities. The news of your president’s call for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons is a positive development and, as I’ve said repeatedly, diplomacy should always be the first preference. However, if diplomacy proves to not be an option, I believe the U.S. must degrade and deter the further use of chemical weapons, without boots on the ground and in a limited, focused and swift way." Steve Israel on his website, for publication in Russian newspapers.

KLEIN: Assad delivers his ransom note. "[T]he White House has argued that these policies are separate — that they can pursue disarmament on one track while also working against Assad's victory on another. But it's hard to believe that Assad will cooperate in the destruction of his weapons even as the U.S. is seriously arming the people trying to overthrow him. A lot of people have wondered why Russia and Syria seem to be working to throw the Obama administration a lifeline. But the answer is clear: Assad only cares about his chemical weapons insofar as they help keep him in power. Sacrificing them to end the threat the U.S. poses to his regime is more than worth it to him." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

COHEN: Where' the moral outrage? "Generals fight the last war. Liberals protest them. The statements of groups on the left regarding Syria are redolent with references to Iraq, Afghanistan and, of course, Vietnam...What perplexes me is that the calls for Congress to rebuff President Obama are empty of moral outrage...I look to liberals to make common cause with the underprivileged, the unfortunate and the weak. If that doesn’t describe the people of Syria, then what does?" Richard Cohen in The Washington Post.

Music recommendations interlude: Andrew Bird, "Imitosis."

Top opinion

CAVANAGH: How we learned not to guzzle. "[T]oday, the good news is that our energy productivity and security are better than they have been in decades...[Obama] has given top priority instead to our most productive and lowest-cost option: the “energy efficiency resources” that come from getting more out of oil, natural gas and electricity with increasingly efficient equipment and vehicles, used more carefully...[E]fficiency’s contribution to meeting the nation’s overall energy needs over that period exceeded that of all fossil and nuclear resources combined, according to a recent study by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a result of 18 months of work by a panel that included me as well as prominent industry representatives." Ralph Cavanagh in The New York Times.

BEINART: The rise of the new new left. "The deeper you look, the stronger the evidence that de Blasio’s victory is an omen of what may become the defining story of America’s next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left. It’s a challenge Hillary Clinton should start worrying about now...If Millennials remain on the left, the consequences for American politics over the next two decades could be profound. In the 2008 presidential election, Millennials constituted one-fifth of America’s voters. In 2012, they were one-quarter. In 2016, according to predictions by political demographer Ruy Teixeira, they will be one-third." Peter Beinart in The Daily Beast.

KRUGMAN: Rich man's recovery. "According to their estimates, top income shares took a hit during the Great Recession, as things like capital gains and Wall Street bonuses temporarily dried up. But the rich have come roaring back, to such an extent that 95 percent of the gains from economic recovery since 2009 have gone to the famous 1 percent. In fact, more than 60 percent of the gains went to the top 0.1 percent, people with annual incomes of more than $1.9 million." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

COHN: Why the House GOP is losing its mind. "If you sincerely believe Obamacare will bankrupt the country, violate personal liberty, raise costs or ruin insurance for most Americans, and generally destroy American health care, then it’s easy to believe that it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the country demands repeal—forcing both Senate Democrats and the president to go along. It’s particularly easy to believe this if you live in the right-wing media bubble, where all of the reports about Obamacare focus on the law’s shortcomings and failures—insurance premiums going up, people losing coverage, part-time workers losing hours, and so on." Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

SINGER: Beyond homo economicus. "It is time to replace the framework of homo economicus with a model that reflects humans’ capacity for altruism and pro-social behavior. By illuminating opportunities for human cooperation, such a framework would provide a useful foundation for political and economic systems that succeed where existing arrangements have failed...Rather than continuing to indulge the most destructive drivers of human behavior, global leaders should work to develop systems that encourage individuals to meet their full socio-emotional and cognitive potentials – and, thus, to create a world in which we all want to live." Tania Singer in Project Syndicate.

Wonkbook's naval-science interlude: Using internal waves to stabilize boats.

2) Meanwhile, back on the home front...

A government shutdown just became a bit more likely. That might be a good thing. "If the GOP needs to lose a giant showdown in order to empower more realistic voices and move forward, it's better that showdown happens over a government shutdown then a debt-ceiling breach. A government shutdown is highly visible and dramatic, but it won't actually destroy the economy. So an "optimistic" case might be that there's a shutdown for the first few days of October, the GOP gets creamed in public opinion, the hostage-taking strategies of the party's right flank are discredited, and Washington is at a much better equilibrium by the time the debt ceiling needs to be raised." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

FBI plans 10-day shutdown to make budget cuts. "After months of agonizing about how to deal with the effects of government spending cuts, senior F.B.I. officials in Washington have decided how they will reduce the bureau’s spending: they will shut down its headquarters and offices across the country for roughly 10 weekdays over the next year. The F.B.I.'s plans mean that on those days, the bureau will have only a skeleton crew on hand, which raises questions about how effectively it can respond to crime. While the shutdown conjures images of the recent movie “The Purge,” in which the government allows people to commit crimes like murder and rape for 12 hours once a year, F.B.I. officials said they would have plans for agents to return to work if there was a terrorist attack or a crime like a kidnapping." Michael S. Schmidt in The New York Times.

Poll: GOP would be blamed for shutdown. "A CNN poll released Wednesday found that 51 percent of people would blame Republicans for a shutdown, while 33 percent would blame President Obama. Twelve percent would blame both parties." Mario Trujillo in The Hill.

Cantor: House may cancel September recess. "House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Thursday that Congress may cancel its upcoming recess as it tackles a number of issues, including the budget and Syria. Cantor said a final decision will be made next week." Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Boehner wants Obama to jump into debt talks. "In meetings with Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders on Thursday after a session with Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew on Wednesday, Mr. Boehner sought a resumption of negotiations that could keep the government running and yield a deficit-reduction deal that would persuade recalcitrant conservatives to raise the government’s borrowing limit...[A]  bloc of 43 House Republicans undercut the speaker’s deficit-reduction focus, introducing yearlong funding legislation that would increase Pentagon and veterans spending and delay President Obama’s health care law for a year — most likely adding to the budget deficit. That bloc is large enough to thwart any compromise that does not attract Democratic support." Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times.

Godspeed interlude: Voyager probe enters interstellar space.

3) Runners taper. The economy's not exactly running.

Economists expect tapering announcement next week. "A majority of economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal—66% of the 47 who responded—expect the Federal Reserve to say at next week's policy meeting that it will begin cutting back its bond purchases, a widely anticipated milestone in a period of extraordinary monetary policy...The entire surveyed group, on average, expects bond purchases to be trimmed by about $15 billion a month. Of those who expect the Fed to wait, most think the announcement will come at the December meeting, not the gathering scheduled for October." Phil Izzo in The Wall Street Journal.

Fed prepares for policy change and change in policymakers. "Federal Reserve officials, who have made clear that they intend to cut back on the Fed’s monthly asset purchases by the end of the year, must decide next week whether it is time to tap the brakes or better to wait another month or two...The far thornier challenge they face is convincing markets that the Fed remains committed to its broader effort to stimulate the economy even as it begins to pull back from the most visible component of that campaign — and even though as many as nine of the 12 voting members of the Fed’s policy-making committee may be replaced in the next year." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

It's the final stretch of the contest for Fed chair. "President Obama has said he expects to name his pick for Fed chairman in the coming weeks...Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) told Roll Call that he would be “open” to confirming Summers, and a spokesman said Johanns will wait until the nomination is made before making his decision. Johanns and Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) were among a handful of Republican senators on the banking committee who voted to advance Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s second term in 2010." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Lew has met with Yellen and Summers. "Mr. Lew met or spoke with former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers on at least three occasions between February and the end of July, according to his official calendar. These include a morning phone call on March 19, a 20-minute meeting at Treasury on April 5, and a 95-minute meeting on the evening of June 4 at Treasury...Mr. Lew’s has also met with Fed vice chairman Janet Yellen – another contender for the job – at least twice during that span. Once was during a trip both took to the G-7 meeting in Buckinghamshire, England, another was at the G-20 meeting in Moscow." Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

GOP senator announces opposition to Summers. "The second-ranking Republican in the Senate said he would oppose former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers if President Barack Obama nominates him to lead the Federal Reserve. "Temperamentally, he's really unsuitable for that job," Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R., Texas) said in an interview Thursday. Although Mr. Cornyn isn't on the Senate Banking Committee, where Mr. Summers would face his first vote if nominated, his opposition suggests the former Treasury secretary could face resistance among conservative Republicans." Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

Labor Department screws up. "The reported figure, which estimated that jobless claims had dropped to 292,000, about 31,000 fewer than the week before, seemingly suggested that the economy was finally entering a self-sustaining recovery on the back of a healing job market. The number, however, is unreliable, the government said, skewed by upgrades on two state computer systems that caused those states to underreport claims. The total number of initial jobless claims is almost certainly higher than reported, though nobody knows the scope of the mismeasurement at this point." Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Wonk out: See the last week's big, unlikely drop in initial claims in this graphFederal Reserve Economic Data.

This is a complete list of Wall Street CEOs prosecuted for their role in the financial crisis. "Zero Wall Street CEOs are in jail...It's not that federal government tried to prosecute a bunch of them but lost the cases. There were no serious efforts at criminal prosecutions at all...The fact that the collapse of financial firms can cause so much collateral damage for the economy doesn’t lower the legal bar for throwing CEOs in jail, no matter how much a basic sense of fairness makes a person wish it were so." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

Federal Reserve bank leaders warns SEC on money-market plan. "A dozen top Federal Reserve officials pressed regulators Thursday to toughen a proposal that would revamp a portion of the nearly $3 trillion money-market-fund industry, and called a key aspect of the plan “imprudent.”...To prevent a repeat, the SEC proposed two plans that focused solely on “prime funds,” which invest in short-term corporate debt. One of the plans would allow the value of “institutional” prime funds to fluctuate, reflecting the true value of the underlying assets...They want the SEC to require a floating share price for retail prime funds, as well as institutional ones." Dina ElBoghdady in The Washington Post.

SEC calls for plan to beat exchange failures. "Mary Jo White, Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, has asked the heads of exchange groups including NYSE Euronext and Nasdaq OMX to provide assessments on the robustness and resilience of US market infrastructure...The meeting was held in response to a three-hour trading outage on the Nasdaq last month, which halted trading in some of the country’s largest companies and raised concerns about the potential fragility of market systems. Nasdaq blamed the outage on problems with a data feed known as the Securities Information Processor, or SIP, which it administers on behalf of all exchanges and consolidates stock quotes and prices." Arash Massoudi and Gina Chon in The Financial Times.

Adorable animals interlude: Puppies and kittens and mirrors.

4) Victory in the Keystone State for Medicaid expansion 

Report: Pa. governor to accept Medicaid expansion. "Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett will likely become the latest Republican governor to embrace ObamaCare's Medicaid expansion, the news site Lancaster Online reported Thursday. Corbett has been under intense pressure from healthcare advocates — as well as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — to sign on to the Medicaid expansion. Pennsylvania would be the 27th state to adopt the expansion. It would cover roughly 680,000 people in the state, according to Lancaster Online." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Democrats reject GOP efforts to delay funding for Obamacare. "Congressional Democrats rejected GOP efforts Thursday to delay or curtail funding for President Obama’s health-care initiative, saying the strategy to block implementation of the law would lead to a government shutdown or a default. Republicans have rallied to the idea of delaying the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as their main point of leverage." Paul Kane and Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

White House determined not to give ground on Obamacare. "[H]e’s defining his goal as not giving any more ground to House Republicans — no budget cuts and no concessions on Obamacare or the debt limit...Obamacare, the crown jewel of the president’s legislative legacy, is truly non-negotiable for the administration, according to Democrats privy to conversations behind closed doors at the White House and on Capitol Hill." Jonathan Allen in Politico.

House passes Obamacare verification bill. "The bill, which passed 235-191, would mandate a verification program to make sure Americans don’t collect more insurance subsidies than they’re qualified for. HHS is already putting such a program in place, but Republicans insisted their measure is necessary in light of extra leeway the Obama administration granted states over the summer...[T]he White House said President Barack Obama would be advised to veto the bill—in the unlikely event the Senate passed it—saying the HHS secretary already has a verification program in place, as the Affordable Care Act requires." Paige Winfield Cunningham in Politico.

Advocates are launching an LGBT-specific Obamacare campaign. Here’s why. "On Thursday, another group will throw its hat in the ring: Out 2 Enroll will launch with a lunch event at the White House as the first national Obamacare outreach campaign to focus exclusively on the LGBT community...The LGBT community is more likely to lack health insurance coverage than heterosexuals. Particularly, Baker thinks that reaching the LGBT community will be a tougher sell–and one that requires more targeted messaging than other outreach campaigns will be able to provide." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

This is spectacular interlude: The animated work of Richard Swarbrick.

5) Breaking terrorism news

Explosions near US consulate in Herat, Afghanistan. "Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have attacked the US consulate in the western city of Herat. The Taliban told the BBC a suicide bomber had detonated explosives outside the building before dawn on Friday. Other fighters then opened fire on the consulate. Several Afghan police are reported to have been killed and injured in the gun battle. It is the latest in a series of attacks ahead of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014." BBC News

'Most Wanted' American jihadist rapper killed in Somalia. "An American who became one of Somalia's most visible Islamic rebels and was on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorist list was killed Thursday by rivals in the extremist group al-Shabab, militants said. The killing of Omar Hammami, a native of Daphne, Alabama, may discourage other would-be jihadis from the U.S. and elsewhere from traveling to Somalia, terrorism experts said." The Associated Press.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

D.C.’s anti-Walmart bill is almost dead. Is a living wage bill nextLydia DePillis.

How people argue with research they don’t likeDylan Matthews.

How long before the Great Plains runs out of waterBrad Plumer.

Why Obama shouldn’t care about backing down on SyriaDylan Matthews.

Assad delivers his ransom noteEzra Klein.

A government shutdown just became a bit more likely. That might be a good thingEzra Klein.

Russia’s position on Syria is all about constraining AmericaBrad Plumer.

This is a complete list of Wall Street CEOs prosecuted for their role in the financial crisisNeil Irwin.

Advocates are launching an LGBT-specific Obamacare campaign. Here’s whySarah Kliff.

Et Cetera

Senate panel approves journalist shield legislationAshley Southall in The New York Times.

Per-student spending dropped by a fifth in Oklahoma and Alabama in just six yearsNiraj Chokshi in The Washington Post.

Harassment, discrimination claims dropping on Capitol Hill. Seung Min Kim in Politico.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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Lydia DePillis · September 12, 2013