House Republicans grapple with defunding ObamaCare

In the face of a government shutdown, House Republicans wrestle with the challenge of pumping billions into unpopular legislation. Photo: AP Photos

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2013 ― Lawmakers in the House are gearing up for a major budget vote Friday, one that could trigger a classic congressional showdown if neither legislative branch steps away from recent assertions. House Republicans are likely to pass a government budget that cuts funding from the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but Democrats in the Senate have vowed to strip any provisions that hurt Obamacare spending.

The “Defund ObamaCare” battle cry has been echoing through Capitol Hill and right-wing airwaves for weeks now, but a new headline has overshadowed that message: Republicans are threatening a government shutdown. While a government shutdown does indeed loom ahead if Congress can’t hash out a funding bill, House Republicans never issued any such zero-sum challenge.

SEE RELATED: The idiot’s guide to de-funding Obamacare

Instead, the latest round of finger-pointing at House Republicans is based on the assumption that the Senate doesn’t need to compromise on the budget issue. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid minced no words at a news conference on Thursday when he addressed the lower chamber’s plan: “In case there is any shred of doubt in the minds of our House counterparts, I want to be absolutely crystal clear. Any bill that defunds ObamaCare is dead. Dead.”

The ACA has been in the crosshairs of Republicans ever since it became law three years ago, and many had hoped that this would be the moment to render it powerless. With the reality of a government freeze on the table, some in the Republican fold have urged lawmakers to press on. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz promised to employ “any procedural means necessary” to gut the healthcare law in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But others have warned against playing with that fire — especially as the mid-term election creeps closer to the forefront. Speaker of the House John Boehner and other Republicans at the helm of the House may argue that a shutdown would threaten their conservative majority. A Crossroads GPS poll shows that, even among those who oppose the ACA, voters from every political stripe don’t want to see the federal government shut its doors. With their favorability numbers scraping rock bottom, House Republicans don’t want to be left holding the bag when the government runs out of money, even if they’re not the only ones responsible.

The last time a Republican-owned House let the government shut down over policy disagreements, the GOP learned a tough lesson. When a weakened President Clinton squared off against the conservative caucus led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich over the issue of a balanced budget in 1995, he saw himself bounce back in the polls and rode that wave to reelection in 1996. Republicans, after taking such a bold stance, folded in the midst of intense pressure and consented to a deal that was basically the same as the one they would have gotten before the shutdown. 

SEE RELATED: Will America survive Obamacare’s implementation?

At a time when President Obama, once an untouchable magnate of public support, stands weakened by his floundering foreign policy and the summer’s barrage of scandals, Republicans can’t afford to give him a boost back into good graces. If they ever hope to destroy his signature legislation, they must avoid at all costs any situation that lets Obama play the victim to the House bullies.

The Republicans will lose steam if their “Defund ObamaCare” movement fizzles out in the face of Democratic stonewalling, but their political clout is already feeble thanks to carefully-orchestrated messaging across the aisle. Digging in their heels while thousands are furloughed and services are suspended nationwide would put conservatives in a much more precarious position.

The fight against the ACA will continue regardless of the outcome of the upcoming budget slog; now is simply not the time to play a game of congressional chicken. As Obama continues to reflect poorly on his party, Republicans must seize this rare opportunity to emerge as the day-savers, not the ones obstructing progress.

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