A nasty little war has broken out between establishment and grassroots factions of the GOP caucus in Washington. On one hand, we have Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and the Heritage Foundation pushing for a stopgap federal spending bill that would prevent any funds from being used to implement Obamacare or distribute its subsidies. Backers of the “defund” strategy argue that by holding the next fiscal year’s government funding hostage (if Senate Democrats don’t pass a bill that combines federal funding with Obamacare defunding or if Obama doesn’t sign it into law, then many discretionary operations of government will be effectively shut down), congressional Republicans increase their leverage in negotiations over Obamacare.
Establishment GOP leaders like Eric Cantor and the Wall Street Journal editorial board counter that such a plan amounts to political suicide. Delaying implementation, they say, is far more popular than defunding it. Plus, Republicans will get blamed for a government shutdown, Obama will have an opportunity to increase his dwindling popularity by bashing the Republican plan, and the GOP will be worse off as a result. Instead of using the stopgap funding bill, or “CR” as it’s referred to in Washington (shorthand for “continuing resolution”), to defund Obamacare, Cantor and his leadership allies have proposed a plan that would delay Obamacare instead. How? By holding the debt limit increase hostage, the result of which would eventually be a government default (barring the enactment of new laws allowing for debt payment prioritization), followed by a government shutdown.
Unfortunately, GOP leadership’s criticisms of the defund strategy for being a suicide mission ring hollow once you notice that the point of leverage in Cantor’s plan — likely government default or shutdown — is no different or better than the point of leverage in the Cruz/Lee plan. For better or worse, the risky proposition of an eventual shutdown is the only point of leverage that can be used by a party with control of only one chamber of Congress. As much as House GOP leaders may hate to admit it, their own plan concedes the key strategic argument put forth by proponents of the defund strategy.
With that key concession in mind, it becomes clear that a compromise that prevents the immediate implementation of Obamacare may actually be within reach.
Rather than pushing for a year-long defunding of Obamacare via the CR fight, Republicans could do the following: pass a CR that funds the government for the next fiscal year at the same levels required by the sequestration law, codify in statute the suspension of the corporate employer mandate already announced by the Obama administration, and pair the statutory suspension of the corporate employer mandate with an equivalent suspension of the individual mandate and the exchange subsidies that go along with it.
That compromise plan has multiple benefits: 1) it uses the threat of a government shutdown, the only real point of leverage possessed by congressional Republicans, without necessitating the threat of the U.S. defaulting on its debt, 2) it shifts away from the less popular “defund” to the more popular “delay” framework while effectively accomplishing the same thing, 3) it forces Senate Democrats and the president to argue that politically connected corporations deserve a break from the law but cash-strapped families don’t, and 4) it also forces them to explain why the president’s constitutionally questionable plan to unilaterally suspend a law he doesn’t like is better than taking his exact plan and actually making it the law.
The first benefit is a concession to proponents of the current defund effort. The second benefit is a concession to the proponents of the delay effort. And the third and fourth benefits allow Republicans to utilize popular populist arguments about the unfairness and hypocrisy of the Obama White House’s plan to throw a bone to the president’s corporate cronies while still sticking it to families who are struggling just to put food on the table.
While Boehner has agreed to at least hold a vote on a “defund CR,” that nod to conservatives doesn’t really change the underlying dynamics of the Obamacare/CR/debt limit negotiations. If that vote fails, or if it passes and the Senate rejects or ignores it, then Congress is right back where it started.