WASHINGTON – Moving on to Plan B, House GOP leaders appear likely to give tea party lawmakers a chance to use a routine temporary government funding bill to try to muscle the Democratic-controlled Senate into derailing President Barack Obama’s health care law.
It’s a strategy fraught with political risk for Republicans, who could find themselves bearing the blame for any partial government shutdown that results from an impasse with the Senate.
The Senate seems poised to reject the GOP move, strip the “defund Obamacare” idea from the legislation and send a straightforward stopgap spending bill right back into the laps of House conservatives frustrated by their inability to unravel the health care bill.
GOP aides said the latest strategy was to be presented to rank-and-file Republicans at a closed-door meeting Wednesday. They required anonymity to discuss the strategy because it had not been announced.
It’s a reversal from an earlier strategy, rejected last week by angry conservatives, that would have sent the measure to the Senate as two bills to ensure that the Democratic-controlled chamber would be able to ship the spending measure straight to the White House and more easily avert a government shutdown after the Sept. 30 end of the budget year.
The idea then was to avoid a subsequent vote on a “clean” stopgap spending bill in the House after Senate Democrats voted to strip out the provision. Stopgap funding bills are typically routine, with neither House nor Senate looking to use them to pick a fight.
The flaw in the fallback strategy is that if the Senate were to send the measure back, angry GOP conservatives might be looking for a fight and could withhold their votes rather than surrender to the Senate and its top Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
House Republicans are also looking at a vote soon to raise the government’s $16.7 trillion borrowing cap on their own terms by pairing it with a roster of conservative priorities, including a renewed assault on the health care law and a mandate to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
Conservatives want to take a must-pass bill hostage and add the assault on the Affordable Care Act in an attempt to force Obama and congressional Democrats to make concessions. GOP leaders have viewed the effort with skepticism since Democrats would never go along.
The idea of defunding Obama’s health care law has been a goal of tea party conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and outside groups like the Heritage Foundation.
Meanwhile, a large group of House conservatives intends to unveil legislation providing an expanded tax break for consumers who purchase their own health coverage and increasing the government funding for high-risk pools, according to lawmakers who said the plan marked the Republicans’ first comprehensive alternative to Obama’s health care overhaul.
Conservatives are frustrated that Republicans control only one chamber of Congress and have little chance to enact their agenda over the opposition of Obama and Senate Democrats.
On the record, GOP aides said no final decision has been made — “or will be made, until House Republican members meet and talk tomorrow,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday.
A shutdown impasse would leave the government without funding authority to pay its workers, including the military, or enter into new contracts until a bill is passed. But essential programs like the military, air traffic control, food inspection, disaster relief and firefighting would continue to function since they’re related to protecting life and property. So-called mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare, which are funded as if on autopilot, would also continue.
National parks would mostly close, most passport applications could not be processed and the space program would largely be put on hold, among other results.
A top House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said Tuesday he would not support the stopgap funding bill under any circumstance since it would fund programs at an annualized funding rate of $986 billion, a level consistent with automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that Democrats are trying to reverse.
But if the Democratic Senate goes along with that funding level, as insiders have signalled, and if Obama endorses the straightforward funding measure, House Democrats likely could be counted upon to provide the votes. The question is whether GOP leaders would want to pass the measure with help from Democrats, which Boehner did on several occasions earlier this year to the consternation of conservatives.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said Tuesday that the GOP move was a nonstarter.
“The president’s been clear. I’ve been clear. Efforts to either defund or delay the Affordable Care Act are unacceptable,” Lew told the Economic Club of Washington. “That is not a path towards something that can ultimately be signed into law.”