Republicans Temporarily Forget How a Bill Becomes a Law

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 19 2013 1:50 PM

Republicans Temporarily Forget How a Bill Becomes a Law

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He's just a Ted, up on Capitol Hill.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It's easy to read too much into the staging of Capitol Hill's many rote press conferences. Once, in 2012, John Boehner walked to the podium for his weekly 10-minutes-or-less on-camera briefing, cast a side-eye at photographers, and asked, "How many pictures of me wearing a tie do you need?" Still, the scheduling of today's on-camera victory laps felt like an exhausted punting of responsibility and clout from the highest-ranking Republican in America to the conservatives who write his agenda.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

"We'll deliver a big victory in the House tomorrow," said Boehner, "and the battle will move over to the Senate, where it belongs. I expect my Senate colleagues to be up to the battle."

Fifty minutes after Boehner wrapped, a bicameral team of Republicans came to the same place—Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee, and backers of the House "defund Obamacare" plan like Rep. Tom Graves and Rep. Mark Meadows. Graves opened the presser with the sort of phrase usually reserved for the conclusion of some grand bargain: "This is a great day for America."

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Graves, Cruz, et al. proceeded to discuss the amazing victory they had won.* That victory, to recap, is an agreement by Boehner to let House Republicans vote for a continuing resolution that will defund Obamacare for all time. That vote hasn't happened yet, and Senate Democrats plan to undo it immediately. They can do it through the regular legislative process. Step one: Bring up the resolution. Step two: Hold a cloture vote, which starts debate and allows amendments to be attached by simple majorities. Step three: Use an amendment to strike the Obamacare lines of the CR. Step four: Pass the CR and send it back to the House.

The inevitability of this outcome led Cruz to make a rare verbal flub. "As soon as the House passes this into law," he said, "it's going to be in Harry Reid's court." But the House doesn't pass anything "into law." A law is made after the House and Senate pass a bill, and the president signs it. Here:

Cruz, like many Republicans, was speaking as if the House's judgment—which, on this issue, does poll well—was enough to set the terms of debate. Reid, he said, may "force a law on the American people" and "may well be able to hold his 54 Democrats to not listen to the American people, to threaten to shut down the federal government to deny Americans the same special treatment that corporations and members of Congress get." That's how it looks to Republicans: Democrats have the unpopular position on health care, so it's their fault, whatever happens.

It's just a tricky position to hold, given that it's mostly illusory. When NBC's Luke Russert asked Cruz how far he might go, Cruz said, "I will do everything necessary and anything possible to defund Obamacare."

"A filibuster?" asked Russert.

"Yes, and anything else," he said. "Any procedural means necessary. Listen, this is the most important political fight in the country."

The AP's great Capitol Hill reporter Dave Espo asked Cruz whether "anything" applied to the move Republicans were already promising when the CR gambit failed—the debt limit negotiations. Cruz dodged the question. "What I have said from day one, what Mike Lee has said from day one, is that we will not support a continuing resolution that funds Obamacare," he said. "This is about Congress using the constitutional power of the purse to reign in an over-reaching executive."

*They did so after a few questions from reporters asking them to explain why, last night, some Republican aides and congressmen had criticized what seemed to be a milquetoast Cruz-Lee statement about how they didn't have the votes to win. "I'm always impressed by the courage of anonymous congressional aide," said Cruz, before pivoting with great ease to a monologue about how Americans cared about policy and not "the back-and-forth of politics."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.