Boehner’s Dilemma: Surrender On Obamacare Or Shut Down The Government

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has made it his mission to keep Democrats united and drive a wedge through Republicans in order to quash their threats to shut down the government and default on the country’s debt.

So far, he’s winning. Democrats stood firm Monday and voted 54-46 to strike down the House GOP’s extraneous measures to delay Obamacare and repeal its tax on medical device makers in exchange for keeping the federal government funded. Now Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is back in the hot seat and the party he leads is increasingly divided.

Boehner is caught in a seemingly inescapable predicament between his responsibility to govern and his desire to keep his job as Speaker. Polls say the GOP will be blamed in the event of a shutdown. But a rambunctious group of ultraconservative lawmakers, backed by well-funded activist organizations, has scuttled Boehner’s attempts to keep the lights on and coerced him to use the must-pass bills as pawns to derail Obamacare.

“This law is not ready for prime time,” Boehner said on Monday, holding his ground. “The House has done its work. We passed a bill on Saturday night and sent it to the United States Senate.” His leadership team hasn’t decided what to do once the Senate sends back a “clean” continuing resolution (CR), which continues spending at current levels. But they are said to be exploring options such as a standalone medical device tax repeal, a one-year delay of the individual mandate and a provision to deny Obamacare subsidies to members of Congress and staff.

Reid and President Barack Obama have no intention of giving in. If they reward Republicans for brinkmanship, the thinking goes, they’ll come right back and demand more concessions in the next deadline. And on and on for as long as they can. So Democrats want to teach Republicans that hostage-taking won’t work and force them to come to terms with their resounding defeat in the 2012 elections.

“We know simply asking for a clean CR while Republicans hold the government hostage for their pet projects and Tea Party panders is going to make it clear to people why the government is shut down, if we get to that point,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “If we cave to their unreasonable demands on short-term CR, they will just come back and make more on the next short-term CR.”

Democrats have the high ground: the public doesn’t want to risk a shutdown over Obamacare and a growing chorus of Republicans is publicly criticizing conservatives’ threats to do so.

“I disagree with the strategy of linking Obamacare with the continuing functioning of government — a strategy that cannot possibly work,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said in a statement on Sunday. And Democrats see an upside in shining a national spotlight on the radical tactics of conservative lawmakers.

“Right now, Ted Cruz is calling the shots in the Republican Party and everyone is following him,” Dan Pfeiffer, a senior White House adviser, said Monday on MSNBC.

If Boehner does give in, he’d have to bring up a clean CR and let it pass with mostly Democratic votes, alienating his GOP members. In that scenario, he has an incentive to wait until a shutdown and include a debt limit hike in a bill to re-open government — another tough vote for Republicans. That would avert a catastrophic debt default and avoid a second cave within weeks by turning two painful votes into one. While a shutdown would furlough hundreds of thousands of federal workers, many economists estimate that breaching the debt limit would be more catastrophic to the average American and do potentially irreversible damage to the economy.

In short, Reid has a lot to lose and little to gain by caving. Boehner has a lot to lose and little to gain if he doesn’t cave.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.
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