Various reports are telling us that House Republicans are mulling a new anti-Obamacare strategy: Rather than push for a government shutdown to force the defunding of Obamacare, they will use the coming debt limit fight to force the administration to delay implementation of the law.
House GOP aides confide to the Washington Examiner’s Conn Carroll and National Review’s Robert Costa that they are less and less inclined towards a shutdown fight, and are looking towards the debt limit as their point of leverage over the Affordable Care Act. As Costa puts it:
Sources tell me the House GOP will probably avoid using a shutdown as leverage and instead use the debt limit and sequester fights as areas for potential legislative trades. Negotiations over increasing the debt limit have frequently been used to wring concessions out of the administration, so there may be movement in that direction: Delay Obamacare in exchange for an increased debt limit.
It’s unclear, at least to me, what happens in this scenario to John Boehner’s vow to insist on dollar-for-dollar spending cuts in exchange for a debt limit hike. But put that aside for a sec. As Jonathan Chait notes, this is an even more dangerous threat than the shutdown chatter, since no one knows what default would bring.
That said, some larger context is in order here.
This latest move from a shutdown-based strategy against Obamacare to a debt limit-based one (presuming it’s even real) is part of a larger pattern, in which GOP leaders try to talk conservatives out of the favored insane and dangerous strategy of the moment by promising another confrontation around some other leverage point later. Indeed, GOP leaders have done exactly this in the past, in order to avoid a confrontation over — yup — the debt ceiling.
Back in January, when the last standoff over the debt limit was looming, John Boehner gave a strategic interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he said he thought the debt ceiling was “not the ultimate leverage” for Republicans. Though he vowed to continue pushing for spending cuts in exchange for a debt limit hike, Boehner said then that he thought the stronger card for Republicans lay in the looming sequester cuts later. This was the promised sop. Ultimately, of course, Republicans caved in that debt limit fight. (They held firm on the sequester and let the cuts go forward, but for many reasons, that was politically much easier than triggering default would have been.)
Now we are being asked to believe that Republicans will use the debt limit — on which they caved last time — to force concessions on Obamacare. But the problem is that the timing of all of this makes this strategy even more suspect this time. As Carroll notes, with appropriate skepticism:
Setting aside whether or not the debt limit is firmer ground to fight Obamacare than the CR is, enrollment in Obamacare exchanges is set to begin October 1. House leadership simply does not have 60 days to delay the Obamacare fight. Yes, you could still delay Obamacare exchange subsidies until the legally required fraud and privacy protections are in place, but Americans will have been signing up for insurance thinking they will get subsidies for months before that happens. That will make it much harder to sell any delay.
So now, under this emerging plan, Republicans would be moving to demand a delay in Obamacare’s implementation — after the exchanges kick in — in exchange for not allowing the country to go into default, even though Boehner himself has already admitted the debt limit must be raised to avoid putting the full faith and credit of the U.S. at risk?
What all of this comes down to is that GOP leaders need to decide if they are going to level with their base, and and acknowledge that blocking Obamacare by using this fall’s confrontations as leverage is just a nonstarter, period, full stop — whether we’re talking about a government shutdown, the debt limit, or whatever.