As House GOP leadership tries to tamp down a revolt over funding Obamacare, a quieter battle is being waged with Democrats and within the GOP: 967, 986 or 1,058. As in billion.
That's the difference between next year's sequester level, the funding level in leadership's bill and next year's pre-sequester level, respectively, and which number makes it into the short-term continuing resolution keeping the government open past Sept. 30 will set the table for the fall fiscal fights to follow.
No matter which number makes it into a short-term bill, the 2011 Budget Control Act would still cut spending to $967 billion starting in January, so to some degree the fight over the numbers is about maximizing each side's leverage heading into the next round, rather than shooting with real budget bullets.
Republicans say they are trying to preserve the spending cuts from the sequester. "If the CR comes from the Senate, you're going to lose it," a senior GOP aide said.
Another point leadership is making to the rank and file is that they will have more leverage in the next round — when the debt ceiling hits.
"Obama has all the leverage in a CR; he has no leverage in the debt limit," the aide said.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., are still trying to salvage their CR strategy, one aimed at getting Democrats to acquiesce to the $986 billion level while simultaneously providing cover for GOP lawmakers who want to go on record having voted to defund Obamacare but don't actually want to risk a government shutdown over the issue.
As in 2011, the plan would have the side benefit of getting Senate Democrats to vote one more time to keep Obamacare in place, which Republicans are convinced will help them defeat vulnerable senators in 2014.
But so far, leadership doesn't have the votes. And on Thursday, Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., introduced his own spending package that would defund Obamacare while cutting spending more than House Republican leaders have proposed.
With 233 Republicans in the House, and about 50 Republicans supporting the Graves bill, that leaves about 180 Republicans not on board. The Graves spending measure includes many names that might be possible for leadership to get, including Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, Richard Hudson of North Carolina and Trent Franks of Arizona.
But getting the final 20 to 30 Republicans to support the bill is where leaders may have issues.
“We don’t see where the votes are for the gimmick plan,” Heritage Action for America Communications Director Dan Holler told CQ Roll Call on Friday.
Heritage Action is closely keeping track of the votes, and the group is one of many voices that thinks there are too many Republicans holding the line on Obamacare for leadership’s gambit to work.
If they can't get the votes, Boehner and company will have a choice — reach out to Democrats or rewrite their bill to appeal to the right.
And that’s where the $967 billion or $986 billion (or something closer to $1.058 trillion, the pre-sequester number set in the 2011 budget law) comes in.
In addition to Obamacare defunding, some Republicans may subscribe to Sen. Tom Coburn's demand for a sequester at $967 billion. The Oklahoma Republican wrote a letter to Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Thursday that said adding any spending over $967 billion would make a “mockery” of the Budget Control Act.
For what it’s worth, Coburn opposes the defund-Obamacare-through-the-CR strategy, saying it’s “not achievable.”
House Democratic leaders are coalescing around the talking point that they won’t accept a continuing resolution that funds the government at sequester levels.
But in private conservations, House and Senate Democratic aides say they are likely to swallow a CR around $988 billion as long as it didn't touch Obamacare, though they aren't necessarily happy with a bill that goes all the way to Dec. 15.
The White House hasn't put up much of a fight so far.
“We would consider a clean CR that prevents a shutdown,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday. That would provide time to consider a broader spending deal, he said.
But while Coburn is holding the line on spending, the major issue still seems to be Obamacare.
Holler also said these sorts of “legislative ploys,” where a member votes to defund Obamacare through a plan that would fund it in the end, don’t fool voters anymore because of groups such as Heritage and technology like Twitter.
“Constituents aren’t falling for Washington procedure anymore,” Holler said. “They don’t fall for the gimmicks. They see through it all.”
If voters do “see through it all,” Republicans could be in trouble.
Boehner needs his conference to pass his plan. If members refuse, he will, at some point, be forced to go to Democrats.
Either he goes to them right away or he passes a measure, such as the Graves bill, that defunds Obamacare and spends at a lower level, knowing it's dead on arrival in the Senate. The Senate will roundly reject that bill, send back its own, Democrat-approved measure, and Boehner will face a "Hastert rule" dilemma.
Emma Dumain contributed to this report.