House Republicans ended a long, tense day on Capitol Hill by doubling down on their bet to threaten a government shutdown over Obamacare, just 48 hours before the deadline.
Late Saturday around midnight, the GOP-led House voted to pass three amendments to the continuing resolution which would repeal Obamacare’s medical device tax (248-174), delay the law by one year (231-192) and make sure U.S. troops are paid (423-0). The stopgap bill would keep the government funded through Dec. 15. The Republicans’ move raises the chances of a shutdown — the first since 1996 — on Monday night when the fiscal year ends.
“There is no such thing as a shutdown. It’s only a slowdown,” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) told TPM before the votes began. “We’re going to get this done.”
At the last minute, party leaders decided to add a special “conscience clause” delaying for one year an Obamacare rule that non-church employer health plans cover contraception without co-pays for female employees. Democrats and women’s advocates quickly recognized the political potency of the provision, issuing scathing criticisms of it.
“It’s important to a lot of us,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) told TPM. “There are many onerous things about Obamacare, but vitiating people’s fundamental rights of conscience is perhaps one of the worst things in it. … The real issue here is conscience and religious freedom.”
Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) dismissed the vote as “pointless” and said any continuing resolution that chipped away at the Affordable Care Act was dead on arrival in the upper chamber.
“To be absolutely clear, the Senate will reject both the one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act and the repeal of the medical device tax,” Reid said. “After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at square one: Republicans must decide whether to pass the Senate’s clean CR, or force a Republican government shutdown.”
A senior Senate Democratic aide said it was “highly unlikely” that the Senate would return on Sunday. The White House also issued a statement on Saturday saying that the president would veto the the GOP’s bill. House Democrats were furious with their Republican colleagues.
“We have debated this issue, and by the way, we won the debate in the election,” said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). “But you refuse to accept the results of the election.”
“It’s a nice government you got there. It’s a nice economy you got there,” an incensed Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said before the vote, accusing Republicans of hostage-taking. “The minority is blackmailing the majority of the country.”
With the clock ticking, it seems likelier that a government shutdown will take place on Oct. 1. The GOP’s amended continuing resolution now goes to the Senate, where Democratic leaders plan to strike it down and kick it back to the House after bringing up a motion to table the GOP’s anti-Obamacare amendments. House Republican lawmakers and leadership aides declined to speculate on how they would respond if and when the Senate strips out their amendments and sends the CR back across the Capitol.
This would set off a staring contest between Reid and Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) as the clock ticks to the shutdown deadline. Republican leaders wanted to avoid an Obamacare confrontation in this debate but the hard right forced their hand — and will pressure them not to blink.
“We’re doing great,” House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) told TPM when asked about how the party’s efforts to unwind Obamacare are going. Will they succeed? “We’ll see.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) supports the House’s changes, his spokesman said: “I don’t know why anyone would reject this bipartisan approach in favor of a shutdown.”
As bad as a shutdown would be for many federal workers, it may actually be good for the prospects of averting a much more catastrophic debt default when the government reaches its borrowing limit on Oct. 17. The pressure on Republicans, many of whom fully expect their party will be blamed for a shutdown, should strengthen leaders’ hand in talking young ultraconservative members back from the brink of threatening an economic calamity while they’re already under the gun for forcing many federal services including national parks and museums to close their doors.
Republican leaders would be happy if Senate Democrats accept repeal of the device tax and nothing else — a tax that a majority of them want to repeal. It would allow them to claim an Obamacare scalp, which they’re desperate to take to their base. But Democrats believe they’re dealing with hostage takers demanding a ransom to keep the economy afloat, which makes it easier for Reid to keep them united as he demands a “clean” bill.
Repealing the tax — which medical device manufacturers have fought tooth and nail — would increase the deficit by $29 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The conservative movement has spent months rallying the GOP base in favor of threatening such a standoff over Obamacare. Egged on by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT), they’ve gained considerable traction, particularly in the conservative-dominated House. The GOP’s right flank views the impending fiscal deadlines as their last opportunity to stop the law before its implementation accelerates on Oct. 1.
As he was exiting the GOP meeting and walking into an elevator, TPM asked House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) if Obamacare was worth shutting down the government over. He blankly stared back as the elevator door closed.