Try as they might, House Republican leaders are having trouble stopping their colleagues from shooting themselves in the foot — again.
Having failed to approve any of the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund federal agencies, Congress has to pass a stopgap spending bill by Sept. 30 to keep much of the federal government from shutting down. But rank-and-file Republicans in the House are resisting their leadership's proposed stopgap because it wouldn't necessarily block funding for the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.
Opponents of the Affordable Care Act don't have the votes to repeal it in the Senate, and even if they did, they couldn't override a certain veto by President Obama. Nevertheless, a large faction in the House wants to hold funding for the rest of the government hostage until Democrats agree to stop implementing Obamacare.
One practical problem with that approach is that "defunding" the law won't eliminate the mandates on insurers that could lead to ever-escalating premiums if the rest of its provisions don't go into effect. The bigger problem is that Democrats show no signs of caving. If the anti-Obamacare forces in the House refuse to support a temporary funding bill that includes money for the Affordable Care Act, the government will shut down. The last time a Republican-led House forced a shutdown, in 1995 and 1996, it helped Democrats reelect an embattled President Clinton.
The House leadership's short-term funding plan relies on a procedural gimmick that would force the Senate to vote on defunding Obamacare, although the appropriations for the rest of government wouldn't depend on the outcome. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) also suggested that the House refuse to raise the federal debt limit unless the main provisions of the Affordable Care Act were delayed until after the 2014 election. But threatening not to raise the debt ceiling is fraught with risk; the last time Republicans did so, in 2011, the stock market tumbled and the economy staggered.
The House GOP's obsession with Obamacare is really just a sideshow to the long-running fiscal dispute the two sides have been embroiled in since the GOP took control of the House. Ultimately, Republicans and Democrats will have to compromise on total spending levels, entitlement reforms and taxes. The longer it takes them to strike some kind of deal, the more of these exercises in brinkmanship we'll go through. The House GOP needs to stop fighting a battle on Obamacare it can't win and get to work instead on the long-delayed "grand bargain."