Welcome to the Republican Party’s Make-Believe Fight to Defund Obamacare

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 18 2013 6:54 PM

The GOP’s Fantasyland

Welcome to the Republican Party’s make-believe fight to defund Obamacare.

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The hard times continued into 2013. Up to now, the House Republicans’ most embarrassing stumble seemed to be the failure of the farm bill, way back in June. Conservatives refused to back a compromise that would have funded food stamps; Democrats refused to provide enough votes for Republican leaders to pass the bill with defections. So the bill failed, and Republicans passed, with amusing fanfare, a farm bill that didn’t fund food stamps at all, one that would be doomed in the Senate.

Why does this keep happening? A large number of Republicans, who know that funding bills have to originate in the House, take this issue very seriously. Their constituents, and the pressure groups, promise to punish them if they don’t defund what needs defunding.

So they run up to the edge, and they pretend that Democrats may go along with their plans—maybe, if they try this a few more times. “We’ll see what the Senate does,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a loyal and talkative Boehner ally. “Nobody can predict that. … If the president and Democrats in the Senate have a road-to-Damascus moment, maybe we will.”

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This was a little risible, because we can predict with 100 percent certainty that President Obama will not accept the demolition of Obamacare. And we know that even vulnerable Senate Democrats have no interest in destroying the law. Most of them either voted for the law in 2009 or defended it on the campaign trail—what, like Republicans would go easy on them if they flip-flopped?

The endorsement from Cole, who was perfectly ready to cave in and vote for the old Cantor plan, proves how illusory the whole plan is. The hardliners were making it impossible to proceed without another showdown, so voilà —here’s the showdown, which they’ll lose. Maybe they can convince Americans that a government shutdown over a refusal to fund current law was really President Obama’s fault. “When it comes to a government shutdown,” said the optimistic Florida Rep. Steve Southerland, “it may depend on who is holding the ball at the end.”

What if that football analogy turns out to be wrong? Well, the leadership can say it did all it could. Enough moderate Republicans will be willing to vote with a majority of Democrats for some ugly compromise.

“Ted Cruz and [Utah Sen.] Mike Lee have been asking for this fight,” said Louisiana Rep. John Fleming, a reliable conservative. “The conservative base has been asking for this fight. So we’re gonna give ’em the fight.”

They’ll give it to them knowing that the fight is almost certainly impossible to win. That’s not as humiliating as it sounds. As illusory as the “defund” campaign is, it’s flashy enough to obscure the gains won by hardliners. Every Republican leaving the meeting today suggested that a compromise funding bill or a compromise debt limit hike would set spending at the levels set by sequestration. At his short press conference, Boehner agreed with that. Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry sounded as cynical as Cole about Obamacare, saying it was “worth falling on your sword” to stop it, not saying that doing so would work. He was much more confident, and more insistent, that the eventual deals would force Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

These would be solid Republican wins, enabled—as far as the conservatives can tell—by the most hard-core members’ willingness to humiliate their leadership. Republicans can see exactly how this plan will make that happen. They’re not able to say how the plan will actually defund Obamacare.

“Our responsibility is to focus on the House,” said Graves. “The Senate’s the Senate.”

Fleming agreed with that, happily punting to his colleagues in the upper house. “If they can deliver on the CR to defund,” he said, “hey, more power to ’em!”

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