Congressional Republicans have become a party of grievances in search of a strategy.
Their first grievance is with President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the single most unifying issue for a party that has been showing signs of divisions all year. Rank-and-file Republicans, especially those who are aligned with the tea party movement, despise the new health-care law. Their anger has welled up to force GOP leaders to respond with ever-riskier strategies to delay, defund or in some other way disrupt the imminent implementation of the legislation.
Their second grievance is with Obama, and his steadfast resistance to negotiate with them on any aspect of the health-care law. The president may unilaterally decide to delay this or that part of the measure, as he did again on Thursday with a small portion of the implementation plan. But he doesn’t want Republicans to touch it. Each time he makes a change, his unwillingness to engage only infuriates them more.
The antagonism between Obama and the Republicans was on full display Thursday. House GOP leaders went before the cameras to offer their latest ideas on funding the government, defunding or delaying Obamacare, and dealing with the day next month when the government is set to run out of borrowing authority.
Suddenly it seemed like the summer of 2011 on steroids. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and others seemed to up the ante again in their quest to stop Obamacare and to force the president to yield. Not only did they continue on a path that could lead to a partial government shutdown on Tuesday, they also signaled that they are ready for another confrontation in mid-October over the debt ceiling, with a list of demands for the president.
An hour or so later, Obama responded at an appearance at Prince George’s Community College in Largo. Rather than trying to tamp down on partisan rhetoric or lower temperatures, he did the opposite, repeatedly waving red flags at the Republicans.
He taunted them and ridiculed them. He said they are obsessed with his health-care law and described some of their objections and characterizations as “crazy” talk. “The closer we get [to implementation], the more desperate they get,” he said. “I mean, over the last few weeks the rhetoric has just been cranked up to a place I’ve never seen before.”
He questioned Republicans’ real motivation in seeking to stop it, saying they are more worried about the possibility that it might work than they are by their assertion that it could wreck the country. “If it was as bad as they said it was going to be, then they could just go ahead and let it happen and then everybody would hate it so much, and then everybody would vote to repeal it, and that would be the end of it,” he said. “So what is it that they’re so scared about?”
Obama also was defiant in reasserting that he will not negotiate over raising the federal debt ceiling, as he had told Boehner in a recent telephone call. He said he would not give in to “blackmail” on issues that he said have nothing to do with the budget. “I will not negotiate on anything when it comes to the full faith and credit of the United States of America,” he said to applause. “We’re not going to submit to this kind of total irresponsibility.”
The risks to the Republicans have been clear since they started down the path to defund Obamacare as part of a bill to keep the government funded. They lack the votes in the Senate to defund the act and in any case Obama would never sign anything like it. That is why there was so much consternation in the ranks when House Republicans set their strategy.
It appeared for a time on Wednesday that they might yield to the obvious and that they were setting their sights on a battle over the debt ceiling. That came after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) completed a 21-hour talk session on the Senate floor.
Then on Thursday morning, Boehner signaled a double-barreled approach: continuing the fight over the bill to keep the government funded and to defund Obamacare while moving forward on a debt ceiling measure that included various other proposals, such as delaying Obamacare, putting tax reform on a fast track and building the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Moving quickly on the debt ceiling was aimed in part at creating wiggle room for the final stages of the battle over funding the government or, failing that, entering a partial shutdown. What was clear was that House leaders continue to try to calibrate how much leeway they have, given the insistence and persistence of the most conservative elements of their conference.
Republicans point to some public polling as evidence that they can prevail in a showdown with Obama over the debt ceiling. A Bloomberg News poll showed that about six in 10 Americans believe that because Congress lacks discipline, it’s better to include spending cuts on a bill to raise the borrowing limit, rather than simply pass a clean version of the measure.
Republicans interpret that finding and conclude that Obama will be viewed as the unreasonable partner if there is a default. Perhaps. Last time, both sides ended up with debris on them when the public turned on Washington’s dysfunctional climate. That might be the best Republicans can hope for — but are they willing to take the government over a cliff to test it?
Republicans clearly lack the votes to win the first battle that will play out through the weekend. Whether they have the will and the unity to take the debt ceiling issue to the brink remains unclear. Right now they are scrambling by the hour, with no clear road map to guide them.