The congressional GOP has finally taken a position in its budget struggle with the Obama administration that maximizes its chances for a decent outcome. Unfortunately, it only got there after going through several other steps first, a process that may have jeopardized the advantage they should be now enjoying.
On Monday, the House passed a GOP-written continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government open, with two Obamacare-related amendments attached to it that the public strongly supports. The first would delay the individual mandate for a year. The second would override the Obama administration’s lawless rule giving Congress and its staff special treatment in the Obamacare exchanges.
The Senate promptly rejected the House-passed CR in a strictly party-line vote on Monday evening.
That’s right. No Senate Democrats supported the latest version of the CR passed by the House -- not one. In the House, nine Democrats supported its passage. This CR doesn’t defund Obamacare, or even delay it for a year. All it does is delay the individual mandate for a year and restore the originally-intended treatment of Congress under Obamacare. In other words, every Senate Democrat – including several from conservative-leaning states who are up for re-election -- would rather shut down the government than give working Americans the same one-year break from Obamacare that big businesses have gotten from the administration, or be treated like other Americans under Obamacare’s rules.
These are not popular positions to take, to put it mildly. In polling, about four out of five Americans support getting rid of the individual mandate. And there’s even stronger support for making Congress and its staff go into the Obamacare exchanges like other Americans who lose their employer plans.
Unfortunately, for the moment at least, the focus isn’t on the incredibly unpopular positions that the Senate Democrats are taking in this fight but on the fact that much of the federal government is now shut down.
Though regrettable, it’s not surprising that the media is covering the story the way it is. It was never a good idea to try to use the threat of a break in government funding to pressure for changes in Obamacare, and it was an even worse idea to telegraph to the world that this was your intention.
But here we are. Because the GOP has now staked out positions that are strongly supported by voters, they have a good chance of regaining the upper hand despite previous missteps. But they need to make the right tactical moves in the coming days and weeks.
The first step should be to signal reasonableness on re-opening the government. It is wrong to assume that the GOP must be ready to shut down the government to gain leverage in this struggle. The GOP has something that the president and his team want, which is some level of budgetary certainty for the executive branch in 2014. The Obama administration does not want to live indefinitely with short-term CRs. That would make it nearly impossible to govern effectively, and certainly would disrupt major spending decisions within the agencies.
Consequently, despite assertions to the contrary, it is almost inevitable that the administration will want, at some point, to negotiate with the GOP leaders in Congress – at least on how to settle appropriations for the coming year. That’s the only way the issue will get resolved. And in those negotiations, the administration will push for spending levels that exceed the amounts that would be available under the Budget Control Act (after the sequester).
GOP leaders, therefore, should be confident that the Obama administration needs and wants something from them, and that they can agree to short-term, clean CRs (like, for two weeks) to keep the government open without giving up this leverage.
But having negotiating leverage is no guarantee of success. The GOP also has to win the public argument over who is right on the merits.