In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Cantor: If We Can't Defund Obamacare, Let's Delay It

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AP Photo / Jacquelyn Martin

"He didn't draw any red lines," said the GOP aide. "He said it's a better opportunity than [the continuing resolution] and a delay there is very doable." The aide added that the concession wouldn't necessarily just involve Obamacare; there could be other reforms. The aide admitted that it depends in part on what the president is willing to give up.

It all sounds far-fetched. After all, trading a government shutdown for default would be like trading a common cold for cancer. And it remains to be seen whether GOP leaders would let the economy collapse if they don't get their way, or if they're merely saying what they have to say to get through the shutdown crisis.

An upside to proposing the debt ceiling idea now is that it helps persuade Republican lawmakers not to withhold their support for keeping the government open. Cantor's suggestion this week comes as Republicans are taking heavy fire from conservative advocates for refraining from risking a government shutdown over Obamacare. House leaders have postponed consideration of the continuing resolution until next week to build support.

Last month, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) floated the idea of delaying or defunding the health care reform law in a debt ceiling package. But he, too, stopped short of drawing any red lines. A leadership aide described it at the time as an "option."

Despite the anti-Obamacare frenzy consuming their right flank, Republican leaders recognize that both a shutdown and default would be a disaster for their party, potentially threatening their House majority ahead of a mid-term election when they hope to win back the Senate. Their balancing act to satisfy conservatives enough to avert a shutdown but not to create expectations that threatening debt default is the way to go.

Back in January, when President Barack Obama held firm and refused to negotiate on the debt limit, as he is now, the House GOP backed down and lifted the debt ceiling without substantive concessions (but rather symbolic ones). Republican leaders recognize that it will be extremely difficult to extract major Obamacare concessions, especially on the eve of its rollout. The last-ditch option in Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) pocket would be to avert disaster by bringing up legislation that passes with the support of mostly Democrats. This route is far from ideal for him, but he hasn't ruled it out.

In a memo to Republicans last Friday, Cantor vowed to continue attacking Obamacare, but not necessarily at risk of wreaking havoc on the economy. Instead he promised that leaders will "hold a series of strategic votes throughout the fall to dismantle, defund, and delay Obamacare." He said Republicans "will continue to pursue the strategy of systematically derailing this train wreck and replacing it with a patient-centered system."

At the end of the day, the battle over Obamacare is largely a side show that Republican leaders have to deal with. The real fight, where Republicans have genuine leverage, is over how much the government will spend next fiscal year and whether Congress will make permanent the lower spending levels after the automatic cuts known as sequestration.