While the possibility of American intervention in Syria has been at the forefront of the national consciousness, another serious issue looms just around the corner. With less than three weeks (and only six working days) left to avert a government shutdown, and an October fight looming on the debt ceiling, House Republicans are finding it nearly impossible to craft a stopgap budget that can both pass muster with Tea Party loyalists and pass the House and Senate.
The hangup is, as it has so often been, Obamacare. Conservative Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have demanded that Republicans make eliminating funding for the Affordable Care Act a non-negotiable part of budget negotiations. As there is no hope that Senate Democrats or President Barack Obama would agree to this demand, such a strategy essentially ensures a shutdown of all but basic government services. That could in turn jeopardize the fragile economic recovery and send the United States back into recession — not to mention a whole host of negative repercussions from stopping all but essential services.
The politics of this are bad to terrible for Republicans, who’ve tried to repeal Obamacare more than 40 times. Polling indicates that Americans would overwhelmingly blame Republicans for a shutdown, and that they do not support shutting down government to repeal the ACA. What’s more, even if Democrats were to agree to repeal funding, it would not stop the ACA from going into effect – most funding is guaranteed from year to year.
Since House Republican leaders recognize that shutting down the government in yet another futile attempt to stop Obamacare from happening is a terrible idea, they have pitched an alternative, which would fund the government, but force the Senate to vote on whether to keep or repeal the ACA. The Senate, which has a Democratic majority, almost certainly would. It is unclear what exactly this would accomplish, other than allowing leaders cover. Unsurprisingly, conservatives have categorically rejected the idea, calling it “hocus pocus.”
Republican firebrands have called the shutdown “a risk you have to take.” In an interview with USA Today, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said: “Any path forward, there’s a political downside to it. We didn’t come here to get re-elected and have safe political careers. We came here to get things done.”
As always, this leaves House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a terrible spot. There are growing signs that Boehner can’t get a majority of his caucus to support continued funding for the government unless it includes some mechanism to block the Affordable Care Act. This leaves Boehner stuck between taking a reckless, terrible stand based on what his caucus wants, or violating the “Hastert Rule,” an unwritten House Republican principle that Speakers won’t entertain legislation which lacks majority support among their caucus.
Boehner has violated the Hastert Rule before, most recently during the fiscal cliff negotiations. However, there was speculation that, in that circumstance, his caucus gave him a dispensation to do so.
Whether they would do so now, with the chance of sticking it to Obama on the table, is anyone’s guess. However, with conservative groups outright demanding that Republicans make their stand here, it is hard to imagine that Boehner could violate the Hastert Rule and get away with it. After all, a failed negotiation on the fiscal cliff would have ended with more tax increases than ultimately passed; Republicans could rationalize that defeat. This, however, is Obamacare, and shutting down the government isn’t that bad of an outcome if, like many on the far right, you don’t believe in government at all.
This leaves the clock ticking toward more self-inflicted pain for Americans. House Republicans may yet blink — politically, it’s the only reasonable thing to do — but if they don’t, we could be looking at the first government shutdown in 18 years, something which no reasonable person, left or right, should want. Alas, the number of reasonable Republicans seems a bit smaller every day.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore