House and Senate Republican leaders face a critical choice in the coming weeks as they weigh whether to risk a government shutdown to try to repeal parts of the health care reform law.
The GOP has recently been focusing most of its attention on pressuring Democrats to slash spending, but Republicans haven’t completely taken their eyes off their goal of repealing health care reform.
The next test will come next week when Republicans must decide how hard to push to defund parts of the law through a long-term continuing resolution.
In the weeks since Senate Democrats voted en masse to block a health care repeal amendment, Republican leaders have trained most of their muscle on President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to embrace big spending cuts. Spending is an area where Republicans believe they have Democrats on the run, but Democrats and the president have dug in deep on health care, which appears to be headed for more battles in the courts and at the ballot box in 2012.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn acknowledged in a short interview before the recess that health care reform hasn’t been the dominant subject of late, but the Texas Republican said that shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of commitment.
“There’s so much going on,” Cornyn said. But he added, “We’re going to look for every bit of leverage, every opportunity we can to stop this,” including defunding.
Repeal and defunding efforts have made headway in the House, but they have been blocked by the Democratic majority in the Senate. Conservative Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Steve King (R-Iowa) have criticized House leadership for not pushing harder by attaching a partial repeal to short-term continuing resolutions that have been enacted to avoid a government shutdown.
Conservative Sen. Jim DeMint said he expects Republican leaders to stand firm on trying to defund the health care law as the House and Senate negotiate a continuing resolution that would cover spending for the remainder of the fiscal year, even if Democrats vow not to support it and a partial shutdown ensues.
“I think you’ll see in the permanent CR for the balance of the year that Republican leaders will hold firm on no funding for Obamacare,” the South Carolina Republican said. “We haven’t won the battle obviously, and as long as it’s law, we’re playing on [Obama’s] turf.”
DeMint said a shutdown threat, which he dismissed as a “slowdown,” shouldn’t deter the GOP. “My opinion is that we should not be so afraid of a government slowdown that we vote for bad policy or too much spending, so that’s a decision everybody’s going to have to make in the next couple of weeks,” he said.
If Obama threatens to veto a bill that defunds his signature health care law, “then he shuts down the government,” Cornyn said. “Do you think the president would really do that? The president would have to be pretty brazen to do that in a fit of pique.”
Some, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who is weighing a bid for the presidency, have also proposed attaching repeal to the pending increase in the federal debt limit. An increase in the debt ceiling will be needed in the next few months to avoid a partial shutdown and a possible default on the debt.
But other Republicans said a government shutdown over health care isn’t in the cards.
“I don’t think anybody’s talking about a government shutdown over health care,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, ranking member on the Finance Committee, said at a news conference to mark the anniversary of the health care law, which was enacted March 23, 2010. The Utah Republican, who voted against the current short-term CR because he said it contained too much spending, noted that he has been a leading backer of court efforts to overturn the health care law as unconstitutional.
Separate from the repeal effort, House Republicans are working on legislation to replace the law with their own language. In addition, they are holding numerous oversight hearings to highlight the costs and regulations created by the law, as well as the numerous waivers that are being given out by the Obama administration.
They’re also going on the road, with the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health heading to Harrisburg, Pa., last week for a hearing on the costs of the law.
“The House has passed a full repeal of Washington Democrats’ job-destroying health care law, as well as numerous provisions to restrict and defund it in the continuing resolution for the remainder of the year,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “We will continue to do everything we can to protect the American people from it.”
But Democrats are starting to sense that Republicans are getting defensive about the repeal effort, and they insist it is going nowhere.
“Republicans aren’t talking much about health care because their efforts keep failing, while Democrats have largely remained unified,” one senior Democratic aide said. “First they tried to repeal it, and they faced pushing forward a bill that increases the deficit by a whopping $1 trillion. Then they tried to defund it, and they found out it would kill their own program — Medicare Advantage. They know they can’t try to take away all the new benefits and protections in the law, so they are pretty much stuck.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.