House Republicans plan Friday vote on defunding Obamacare

The Post's Congressional reporter Ed O'Keefe reports on how the debate over Obamacare is holding up legislation in the House and Senate. (The Washington Post)

With the deadline for a government shutdown growing near, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had a familiar choice to make: embrace something that looked like a compromise with Democrats, antagonizing conservatives in his party, or give in to their demands and guarantee a showdown with President Obama and Senate Democrats.

On Wednesday, Boehner announced that he had chosen to stick with his own.

Rather than rallying Republicans to a less-confrontational plan to keep the government running past Sept. 30, Boehner threw in with the boisterous, rebellious wing of the House GOP: He set, for Friday, a vote that would simultaneously provide funding to keep the government open, while stripping away money to implement portions of Obama’s health-care law. This approach has proved divisive, prompting finger-pointing Wednesday among House and Senate conservatives.

The speaker’s team also announced that it intended to challenge the administration further by demanding a one-year delay of all aspects of the health-care law, known as Obamacare, when it comes time to consider granting expanded borrowing authority to the Treasury in the coming weeks. Without that authority, the federal government risks a first-of-its-kind default on the nation’s nearly $17 trillion debt.

The Democratic reaction to both ideas was swift, setting up yet another game of political brinksmanship that could leave the embattled speaker in an even weaker position and threaten the nation’s fragile economic recovery.

U.S. debt outlook is still dark.

“We’re going to continue to do everything we can to repeal the president’s failed health-care law,” Boehner told reporters Wednesday after an hour-long huddle with the House Republican Conference.

Moments after Boehner announced his intentions, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) blasted the GOP strategy, saying Republican “anarchists” are tying up the upper chamber by insisting on votes about delaying or ending the health-care law.

“Bipartisanship is a thing of the past. Now all we do is ‘gotcha’ legislation,” Reid said.

Without any action by Sept. 30, almost every agency of the federal government will be partially shuttered, as an even-more-ominous deadline to increase the federal debt limit looms a few weeks later in October.

Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — a sometime rival who in this case worked hand in hand with the speaker — initially tried to avoid the showdown. They crafted a complicated legislative mechanism that would allow them to fund the federal government at current levels until Dec. 15, while voicing symbolic opposition to the health-care law. It would have required votes entirely from the GOP side of the aisle, and dozens of House conservatives revolted against the plan outlined by Cantor as a gimmick. Wednesday that plan was shelved.

Instead, the Republicans have chosen a road fraught with peril. They face the prospect of shuttering the government in their effort to cripple Obamacare, risking political damage among results-oriented independent voters.

The first step for Boehner is winning approval for the stopgap funding bill entirely with Republican votes. His Obamacare strategy has won him the support of a large number of conservatives who have repeatedly criticized his leadership and voted against previous bills he has advanced.

“This is the best plan that I’ve seen so far,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), one of several more-conservative members who seemed buoyed by Boehner’s decision to challenge the health-care law.

“Leadership has been very receptive to . . . members and then making adjustments as necessary,” said Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), who first introduced a plan to defund the health-care law while funding government operations for another fiscal year

The legislation would fund federal agencies at an annualized rate of more than $986 billion but would also leave in place automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, set to take effect in January. It would include language to prohibit any funding going to implementing the health-care law and, additionally, authorize the Treasury to pay some bills and not others in the event that no deal is reached in October on increasing the debt limit.

With the newfound conservative support, Republicans believe that legislation will pass, possibly Friday. In the Senate, Reid plans to strip the health-care provisions from the government funding bill, and senior aides in both parties said he would have the procedural flexibility to do that.

“The president has made it clear that they will veto this, so it is nothing more than a partisan poison pill,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said Wednesday, predicting an easy vote for the majority Democrats to strip the health-care provision.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the loudest champion in the Senate of the new Boehner strategy, acknowledged that he would probably be helpless to stop the funding bill in his chamber. “Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so. At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people,” Cruz said in a statement.

That statement angered House Republicans, who felt goaded into the Obamacare fight by Cruz and his outside conservative group allies.

After Cruz’s statement was released, a Boehner spokesman countered with this statement: “We trust Republicans in the Senate will put up a fight worthy of the challenge that Obamacare poses.”

When the Senate is done with the funding bill, the House will have to vote on it again, but that timetable probably would leave Boehner just two or three days to make a fateful decision: approve the legislation with a large bloc of Democratic votes or pursue the Obamacare strategy further and shut down the government.

What’s unclear is whether Boehner and Cantor would rally a large number of Republicans to support voting to keep the government open or if support would collapse because of continued pressure to defund the health-care law.

Faced with another crisis moment on New Year’s Day, Boehner allowed a compromise tax bill on the floor that raised rates on the wealthiest Americans but locked in permanently the Bush-era tax cuts for the vast majority of workers. Because many Republicans considered it a tax increase, barely a third of Boehner’s caucus supported him, as the legislation passed on the back of the Democratic minority.

At the start of the year, Boehner pledged to avoid too many more of those circumstances in which the majority effectively became the minority. Another such vote on a big issue would leave him even more weakened heading into the debt-ceiling showdown.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Boehner, who has served in the House since 1991, reminded fellow Republicans — more than half of whom have served less than three years — that public opinion of President Bill Clinton soared in the weeks after a government shutdown that was prompted by similar disagreements with a Republican-led Congress over spending.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a key Boehner ally, said the speaker seemed pleased with the new strategy.

“I don’t think there’s much doubt about his passion or his commitment to getting something done, and frankly when we’re at 218, we’re at our strongest. That was the basic message,” Cole said, referring to the number for a majority in the full House. “We’ve been looking for the formula to get us there, and he thinks he’s found it.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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