By Spencer Perlman
Congressional Republicans and the Obama White House are on a collision course over the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that could lead to a government shutdown, an unprecedented default by the federal government, or both. Neither side appears willing (or able, politically) to back down, which portends a bumpy few weeks and/or months.
This latest crisis marks the most recent battle in a three-year odyssey marked by rancor, distrust, and political gamesmanship that began with the election of a Tea Party-fueled Republican majority in the House of Representatives in November 2010 and has only grown more intense with time and the subsequent reelection of President Obama in November 2012. The House Republican rank-and-file (and, increasingly, their brethren in the Senate) is alternately cheered on and prodded by a highly aggressive and effective conservative grassroots network that is demanding that the government be shrunk and “Obamacare” be derailed at all costs; compromise is synonymous with surrender.
On the other side, the Obama White House has been somewhat clumsy in its rollout of the ACA; its communications operation has been largely ineffective and the president’s standing on Capitol Hill is damaged even among his own party due to what is seen as an aloof and condescending attitude towards Congress. Consequently, both sides in this debate are boxed in and facing intense pressure to seek out confrontation.
There are two significant and quickly approaching deadlines that are at the heart of the latest standoff. First, the federal fiscal year ends on September 30th, meaning that the government will be unable to pay its bills and shut down unless a stop-gap continuing resolution (CR) is passed to extend current appropriations and keep the government operating. Second, the federal government will hit its statutory debt limit on October 18th, meaning that the government can no longer borrow funds. Since about 40 percent of all federal expenditures are paid for with borrowed dollars, a failure to increase the debt limit would cause the federal government to have to cease several critical governmental operations, default on its debt obligations, or both. Each of these scenarios would be catastrophic and would threaten the well being of millions of Americans who rely upon government assistance, probably cause all government employees to go without pay, and seriously rattle the financial markets throughout the world.
The major sticking point between conservative congressional Republicans and the president is that the GOP wants to leverage the crises to force Mr. Obama to abandon and/or delay the implementation of the ACA. House Republicans are bringing up a CR today that would prohibit any federal funding to be spent on any activities related to the ACA and its implementation. The CR would maintain funding at sequester levels.
The GOP is daring the President to veto the CR and shutdown the government over the ACA and Mr. Obama is ready to call their bluff. The President has made clear that he will not abandon what he considers his crowning achievement under any circumstance. House Republican leaders are concerned with the no-holds-barred approach, but their hands are tied by their rank-and-file. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and other senior House leaders had tried to urge the House Republican Conference not to pursue this path, but the leaders were unable to secure the necessary 218 votes for passage for a CR that was not tied directly to the defunding of the ACA.
It appears likely that the House Republicans have the votes to pass the CR that defunds the ACA; at that point, the bill will be sent to the Democratic-controlled Senate where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will seek to strip out the ACA component and send back to the House a “clean” CR. A handful of Tea Party-backed Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) are likely to attempt to filibuster the CR and force the Democrats to accept the ACA defunding provisions. If the Senate Republican leadership acquiesces to this approach, it will be possible for Cruz, Paul, and Lee to tie the Senate in knots, keep the CR from passing, and force a government shutdown.
At this point, it is unclear what Senate Republican leadership will do; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is an institutionalist at heart, but he is facing a serious challenge from the right in his run for reelection and may feel forced to back the kamikaze strategies embraced by the Tea Party and Cruz, Paul, and Lee. If, however, Sen. McConnell does not whip his Conference into supporting or sustaining a filibuster, the House GOP will be forced to vote on the clean CR and the Speaker will need House Democratic votes to get the CR through the chamber. While House Democrats are furious that the CR does not reverse the sequester, it is expected that enough Democrats will support the CR to see it through to passage.
Meanwhile, House Republicans also are preparing for the debt ceiling showdown by pulling together a list of “demands” that must be met by the President in exchange for raising the ceiling by enough to cover government expenditures for one year. Among the demands is a one-year delay in the ACA, tax reform instructions that will not increase overall revenues, and other conservative pet causes, such as the Keystone oil pipeline. The President has announced time and again that he refuses to negotiate over the debt ceiling, so it is unclear how this scenario will play out. The key in this are the Senate Democrats – to what degree are they willing to fight this battle on behalf of the White House knowing that a failure to act could be devastating to the world economy.
Looking ahead, the next several days, weeks, and months promise to be chaotic and full of drama. Most observers of Congress guess that a short government shutdown will occur and that the debt ceiling debate will go right up until the deadline before one side or the other backs down. There is no question, though, that the standing of all federal policymakers will be damaged even further and the country will lurch towards its next political crisis.