In recent weeks there has been a push among members of the Republican Party and Tea Party activists to “defund” the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare.” The Republicans have devoted considerable time and energy to the repeal of Obamacare, which is driving up health insurance costs around the country according to UPI. According to NBC News, by the beginning of August the Republicans in the House had voted to repeal Obamacare no less than 40 times.
The problem for the GOP is that Democrats control the Senate and the White House. Repeal bills from the House die in the Senate, usually with a party line vote. If a repeal bill did somehow pass the Senate, it would face a certain veto from President Obama.
If Republican bills to repeal Obamacare have failed 40 times, what makes them think that a bill to defund the president’s health care reform can make it through the Senate? The plan, formulated by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), centers around a pledge to “not support any continuing resolution or appropriations legislation that funds further implementation or enforcement of Obamacare.”
The defund Obamacare movement has several hurdles. The first is getting enough Republican support. Lee’s plan is supported by Senators Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). In all, about a dozen Republicans have signed onto the plan so far. Cruz told CNN on August 27 that 41 senators or 218 representatives would be needed to make the plan work. There are currently 233 Republican representatives and 45 senators. This means that the plan would require near unanimity among Republicans.
The second hurdle is negotiations with congressional Democrats. While the Democrats have never voted to repeal Obamacare, some new Democrats accept that Obamacare is deeply flawed and unworkable. Others might be persuaded to work with Republicans to fend off election year challenges. A compromise with congressional Democrats would be difficult but not impossible.
The final hurdle is President Obama. In 2011 and 2012, the two parties entered negotiations to raise the federal debt ceiling. At the end of 2012, the parties negotiated to avoid the tax cliff, a number of new taxes and tax increases scheduled to automatically go into effect. In each case, Obama adamantly opposed even token spending cuts. According to Bob Woodward’s book, “the Price of Politics” (excerpted in the Washington Post), Obama was willing to take the country to the brink of default and total financial collapse to avoid cutting federal spending in 2011. The story was the same in the tax cliff negotiations when, as reported by Examiner in December, the president refused to consider any plan that did not raise taxes.
The first test of the plan to defund Obamacare would likely come by mid-October when the federal government reaches its spending limit. Congress must act to raise the debt limit again before the limit reached and President Obama is refusing to even enter into negotiations over the increase. Where once Obama was considered by some to be “the adult in the room” during negotiations, he now seems more akin to a toddler who holds his breath until he gets what he wants. This is the man with whom the Republicans plan to issue an ultimatum to defund his signature piece of legislation. Last week, Cruz told Fox News that he believes that the president might agree to defund the Affordable Care Act. He did not say how he thought Obama might be persuaded to do so. A more likely scenario is that Obama would act unilaterally to raise the debt ceiling without Congress as the Democrats threatened last January.
Rasmussen reported on August 26 that a majority of Americans are still opposed to Obama’s health care law by a margin of 54-41 percent. Nevertheless, a poll commissioned by Republican members of Congress in early August found that 71 percent oppose shutting down the government to fight Obamacare according to the Washington Examiner. Among Republicans, 53 percent oppose a shutdown compared to 37 percent in favor. A more recent Rasmussen poll on August 27 found that 42 percent of Republicans thought a government shutdown would be good for the party while 28 percent thought it would hurt and 14 percent believed it would have no impact.
In practical terms this means that a government shutdown could jeopardize Republican chances of victory in the 2014 elections. As detailed in Examiner last week, Democrats are defending 20 seats to the Republicans’ 15. Of seven open seats, five are currently held by Democrats and three of these are in red states. The current Rasmussen generic congressional ballot favors the GOP by one point. The GOP had a similar edge in the 2012 elections and actually lost two seats in the Senate.
With less than two months left before Congress must act on the debt ceiling, it is unlikely that enough Republicans will sign onto the plan to block funding for the law. If Republicans did unite around the effort, the result would most likely result in a stalemate that would bring the country to the brink of a government shutdown. Given President Obama’s past history in such showdowns, he would be willing to allow the country to default and use the ensuing crisis as a weapon against the GOP. For example, Obama could delay military pay and entitlement checks or even making payments on the national debt while blaming Republicans. Republicans would be forced to choose between defunding Obamacare or a national default. Few would choose to default.
Even if Republicans were successful in their defunding effort, it might still not stop Obamacare. A Congressional Research Service report requested by Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in July indicates that implementation of Obamacare would likely continue in a government shutdown for two reasons. First, some funding from discretionary and mandatory funds would still be available. Second, exceptions to the Anti-Deficiency Act would allow some pre-authorized spending to take place.
The long odds against defunding Obamacare bring to mind Pickett’s Charge or the Charge of the Light Brigade, a valiant effort that is doomed to almost certain failure. Nevertheless, some Republicans might personally benefit from a situation even as their party loses. The Washington Post points out that Cruz, Rubio, and Paul may well use the effort to make themselves more attractive as presidential candidates for 2016.
Coming soon! A better plan for Obamacare.