One question, more than any other, will determine the shape of the national political discussion over the next several months: Will Republican leaders make Obamacare a central part of the coming negotiations over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling?
At the beginning of the summer, that prospect seemed unlikely. House speaker John Boehner worried that linking Obamacare to either a continuing resolution or the debt ceiling was a risky strategy that could backfire. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell shared those concerns and, along with others on his leadership team, preferred an approach to the coming discussions that prioritized reform of existing entitlements. But as members of Congress prepare to return to Washington for the fall, there are growing indications that Republicans intend to keep the president’s troubled health care reforms center stage.
There is little enthusiasm among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill for the campaign, led most publicly by Senator Ted Cruz, to defund parts of Obamacare in the continuing resolution that would fund the government beginning October 1. But GOP leaders are actively considering tying any hike in the debt ceiling to a delay of all or parts of Obamacare.
In a call Thursday night with Republican members of the House, Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor both argued that Republicans have more leverage on the debt ceiling than on the short-term government funding measure. Boehner included “stopping or delaying Obamacare” as one of the leverage points for Republicans, along with pro-growth tax reform, the Keystone pipeline, and broader entitlement reform. Before the call, sources said that Boehner was warming to the idea of tying Obamacare to the debt ceiling. Rather than defunding Obamacare through the continuing resolution, one House leadership source says, “there is a growing sense that the more effective route would be using the debt limit and sequestration to achieve targeted strikes on the law, such as delays of various components.”
The same is true on the Senate side. In an editorial meeting with The Weekly Standard on August 2, McConnell wouldn’t endorse any particular strategy on the fall budget and debt ceiling negotiations, but made clear that he’s open to including Obamacare in those talks.
“We could end up doing exactly what you’re talking about,” McConnell said in response to a question on tying a debt ceiling increase to a delay of Obamacare. “It’ll be an interesting test. The American people are on our side. Some House Democrats are on our side, too. That may be where we end up. What I don’t want to do is tell you there’s some final strategy here.”
He added: “I’d like to get something consistent with Republican principles out of this leverage that we now have on spending reductions, and Obamacare would be a great place to start.”
The shift in thinking comes largely because of Obamacare-related developments over the past two months, including: the administration’s decision to delay implementation of the employer mandate; House votes to delay the employer and individual mandates, which passed with support from 35 and 22 Democrats, respectively; the increasingly vocal opposition to the law from former supporters, including elected Democrats and top labor leaders; and a steady stream of news reports highlighting the chaos almost certain to result from an attempt to implement the reforms on schedule.
There is little doubt that the effort by some conservatives to enlist support for defunding Obamacare is also a factor. In late July, Cruz coauthored a letter with senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio vowing to vote against any continuing resolution that included funds for Obamacare. McConnell’s office discouraged this undertaking, but 10 of their colleagues, including John Thune, the third-ranking GOP leader, signed the letter. Last week, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas added his name.
In the House, Representative Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, led a similar effort. Sixty-six of his colleagues signed his letter, which differs from the Senate version in one important respect. The Meadows letter expresses support for defunding Obamacare but does not obligate signatories to vote against any continuing resolution that funds the reforms. By late August, that letter had been signed by a third of the Republicans in the House (79).
Meadows says he would back an attempt to delay the implementation of Obamacare by linking it to a debt ceiling hike. “I’ve gone out of my way to say this is one strategy and about 80 of us believe in it, but I’m open to others. Leadership has a concern, as do I—they don’t want side effects that would hurt people, and a government shutdown could do that,” he says. “It’s overwhelming in my town halls—they’re saying we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to stop this, whether it’s [my] strategy or another one.”
The case for including Obamacare in upcoming budget and debt negotiations is strong. The law is in trouble. The White House understands this. The president can pretend, as he did in his weekly address last week, that it’s just Republicans pointing out the mounting challenges to the reforms. It’s not. Those responsible for implementing various elements of the law are worried, too. Some of them—including officials at HHS, Treasury, and the IRS—have said so in meetings with stakeholders who are trying to shape the regulations flowing from the law. And it was the Obama administration that announced the delay in the implementation of the employer mandate. There are other parts of the law that ought to be delayed, too.
Republicans quickly, and wisely, pointed out that delaying the employer mandate without a similar respite for individuals would be both illogical and unfair. Many others, including editorialists at Obama’s hometown newspaper, echoed those sentiments.
In some respects, including Obamacare in the negotiations this fall is a fight Republicans win just by having it. Much of the reporting out of Washington in coming weeks will focus on the struggle over the budget and the debt ceiling. By adding Obamacare to that debate, Republicans will force the White House—and vulnerable Democrats in Congress—to defend the law at precisely the time they’d like to avoid it. Even if Republicans “lose” in this scenario—if Obama refuses to consider delaying any more of Obamacare—at a minimum they will have bought leverage for other parts of the negotiation and provided voters with a clear reminder of who owns the coming chaos.
Representative Jim Jordan, a leading voice of House conservatives who has signed the Meadows letter, says Obamacare has to be part of the budget and debt negotiations this fall. “Of course we have to address it,” he says. “I’m open to any strategy that gets us there.”
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.