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

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Sept. 18 2013 6:54 PM

The GOP’s Fantasyland

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

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during the "Exempt America from Obamacare" rally.
Ted Cruz might as well be stumping for world peace and free Cokes for all.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

If you’re in a hurry, and you can only memorize one fact about the coming congressional debt and budget war, try this: There will be no “defunding of Obamacare.” It’s impossible for Republicans to admit it, great energy is being spent to prevent them from admitting it, and large sums of money are being raised and spent to stop conservatives from realizing it. If you want to skip to the end of this drama, past Friday’s likely vote on the resolution that defunds Obamacare, the final page reads “… and Obamacare survived.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

To get to that ending, House Republicans—who really do want to shred the law—have to construct a series of hallucinations for their holdouts. They’re very convincing hallucinations. The current plan, which Republican leaders were confident enough to endorse on camera today, is to pass a continuing resolution that funds the government at a shrunken, post-sequestration level, but ends funding for Obamacare—implementation, subsidies, etc.—permanently. And if that fails, Republicans are going to try to demand a one-year delay of Obamacare in a deal to raise the debt limit.

It’s a brilliant ruse. Until last week, Eric Cantor and other House GOP leaders had wanted to pass a funding bill that carved out Obamacare. This would have allowed members to say they’d voted against the funding, then blame the Senate for betraying them. The plan was condemned by conservative groups like Heritage Action, and by Sen. Ted Cruz, who’d just spent August stumping for the death of Obamacare, often at events sponsored by Heritage Action. “Another symbolic vote against Obamacare is meaningless,” said Cruz. “Tell Pete Sessions and Eric Cantor to stop playing games with the lives of Americans,” said RedState.com’s Erick Erickson. Cantor relented right before Congress recessed for a long weekend instead of resolving the dispute.

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The new defunding plan was built from the blueprints of Cruz and Georgia Rep. Tom Graves, both Republicans who’d criticized the Cantor sellout. It was sold, successfully, at the conference’s Wednesday meeting.

“The key to any leadership job is to listen,” said House Speaker John Boehner after the doors opened.

“The conference was unifying around the proposal because we focused on keeping the government open and protecting the American people from Obamacare,” said Graves after the meeting. From there, he logged on to a Heritage webcast to sell the plan to his base. “People say it’s a victory for conservatives or the right. It’s actually a victory for America.”

What’s remarkable about this illusion is just how often it works. Defunding Obamacare through the continuing resolution isn’t a new idea. It came up in the winter of 2011, when the new House Republican majority faced its first continuing resolution. Cantor said it would “likely preclude any funding” for Obamacare. Rep. Steve King pledged to “block funding for its implementation and enforcement onto every appropriations bill or continuing resolution from this point forward.” The House ended up “defunding” Obamacare, and watching the Senate strike that part of the bill—but it was OK, because it would get another chance.

Here’s another old idea: getting conservative holdouts to back their preferred version of a bill, just in order to say that the House has passed something. That happened in June 2011, when Republican whips failed to line up votes for a compromise debt limit package because it didn’t require spending caps or a balanced-budget amendment. Conservatives had demanded, and pledged to support, a debt limit hike that hinged on passing a strict balanced-budget amendment, one that would make tax hikes impossible. Leadership caved and let the party pass the hardline bill—which was, of course, ignored in the final debt deal, as the amendment went down like a soggy paper plane.