House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)
House Republican leadership has a new plan to appear to try to defund Obamacare without really doing so, and it's not making anyone happy.
It's a strategy predicated on the idea that Republican activists are stupid. Many of them are stupid. But they're not stupid enough to fall for this.
Here's the background. Congress must pass a new continuing resolution by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government open for business. Conservative Republicans want that bill to contain no money for implementing the president's health care law. Obamacare defunding won't pass the Senate, so if Republicans insist on it, they're likely to force a government shutdown, which would be very unpopular.
So House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is proposing to send two bills to the Senate: One that keeps the government open and spending about as much money as it has been, and another that amends that spending bill to defund Obamacare. Then, Senate Democrats will be able to pass the former and send it to the president's desk, while defeating the latter.
Under this strategy, House Republicans get to pass an Obamacare defunding bill, Senate Democrats get to pass a bill that includes spending on Obamacare, and the government stays open. Everyone's happy, except of course for conservative activists who actually want Obamacare defunded.
Here's why Cantor feels compelled to pursue a strategy that is sure to antagonize his base. If they don't get sidetracked by a fight over Obamacare, Republicans do have a real goal in the upcoming spending fight: They want to preserve all of the spending cuts they got in budget fights in 2011, except cuts to the defense budget, which they want to partially restore.
And that's what the forthcoming Cantor bill would do: It would keep spending at the prescribed levels from the 2011 Budget Control Act, including sequestration cuts, plus $20 billion in added spending on the military. What's unclear (until we see bill text) is whether that added $20 billion will be available to spend; because of the arcane process created by the BCA, you can authorize added spending, but it can't actually be spent unless you also raise specified spending caps.
Here's the key quote from National Review's writeup of the proposal:
A GOP leadership aide says the odd structure is necessary to prevent Senate Democrats from abandoning the spending cuts in the sequester. “Consistent with the Meadows letter [the letter signed by many House Republicans demanding that Obamacare be defunded], House Republicans will force Senate Democrats to consider defunding Obamacare as part of the [continuing resolution] debate, while minimizing the risk that we lose sequester-level funding. It’ll now be up to Harry Reid to once again be responsible for raising premiums and hurting job growth by funding Obamacare,” the source says.
If Republicans want to be able to drive the amount of federal spending after Sept. 30, they have to be able to pass a bill out of the House that (1) limits spending to a low level, around sequestration levels and (2) is free of poison pills such as Obamacare defunding. If they can't pass a bill, or they pass a bill that looks unserious, whatever passes the Senate will be seen as the default position for what the government will do if it's not shut down. That might mean spending more money.
But House Democrats won't vote for a bill that aligns with Republican spending priorities, meaning Cantor will need nearly all of his caucus to vote for the Republican CR, and many Republicans are insistant that a bill should defund Obamacare. So while Cantor's approach looks stupid—and a lot of conservatives are apoplectic—without it, House Republicans' only option may be handing control over the terms of the CR to Senate Democrats.
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