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September 19, 2013

Dodge default, defund Obamacare, GOP leaders say

WASHINGTON — House Republicans vowed Wednesday to pass legislation that would prevent a partial government shutdown and avoid a historic national default while simultaneously canceling out Obamacare, inaugurating a new round of political brinkmanship as critical deadlines approach.

President Barack Obama swiftly condemned the effort as attempted political extortion, and the Republican-friendly Chamber of Commerce pointedly called on lawmakers to pass urgent spending and borrowing legislation — unencumbered by debate over Obama’s health care overhaul.

The two-step strategy announced by House Speaker John Boehner marked a concession to his confrontational rank and file. At the same time, it represented a challenge to conservatives inside the Senate and out who have spent the summer seeking the votes needed to pull the president’s cherished health care law out by its roots. They now will be called on to deliver.

“The fight over here has been won. The House has voted 40 times to defund, change Obamacare, to repeal it. It’s time for the Senate to have this fight,” said Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

As outlined by several officials, Boehner and the leadership intend to set a House vote for Friday on legislation to fund the government through Dec. 15 at existing levels while permanently defunding the health care law. The same bill will include a requirement for Treasury to give priority to Social Security and disability payments in the event the government reaches its borrowing limit and cannot pay all of its obligations.

A second measure, to be brought to the floor as early as next week, would allow Treasury to borrow freely for one year.

That same bill is also expected to be loaded with other requirements, including the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada to the United States, a project that environmentalists oppose and that the Obama administration has so far refused to approve. Other elements will reflect different Republican budget priorities, including as-yet-undisclosed savings from health care and government benefit programs and steps to speed work on an overhaul of the tax code.  

Prospects for passage of the two bills are high in the House, where Republicans have a majority and leaders pronounced the rank and file united behind the strategy.

But both measures are certain to be viewed as non-starters by majority Democrats in the Senate.

Some Republicans appeared to concede during the day that the legislation that eventually reaches the White House will leave the health care law in effect.

“I don’t think that any reasonable person thinks there’s anything to be gained by a government shutdown,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “Rather than a shutdown of government, what we need is a Republican victory in 2014 so we can be in control. I’m not sure those are mutually compatible.”

Still, it is unclear how long it will take Congress and the White House to clear the measures, and how close the government will come to a partial shutdown or a market-rattling default over the next three weeks.

Separately on Wednesday, the Obama administration’s budget director, Sylvia Burwell, issued a memo to department heads that said, “Prudent management requires that agencies be prepared for the possibility of a lapse” in funding.

Congressional Democrats competed to denounce the Republican move in the strongest possible terms. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said the GOP was pursuing an “insane plan.”  Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said, “A group of extremists is threatening to hold our government hostage.”

Obama, speaking to CEOs at a meeting of the Business Roundtable, said, “You have never seen in the history of the United States the debt ceiling or the threat of not raising the debt ceiling being used to extort a president or a governing party and trying to force issues that have nothing to do with the budget and have nothing to do with the debt.”

He attributed the effort to a “small faction” within the Republican Party.

R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce for government affairs, urged the House in a letter to “act promptly to pass a (bill) to fund the government and to raise the debt ceiling,” and then to return to health care, tax reform and other issues.

Whatever its ultimate impact on Republican lawmakers, the letter stands as a counter to an aggressive campaign by tea party-aligned groups including the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action and the Club for Growth in recent weeks to generate support for legislation to defund the administration’s health care overhaul.

The approach outlined by Boehner and the GOP leadership team underscored how quickly tea party lawmakers have shifted their principal focus in the weeks since Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah as well as the outside groups began stressing the issue.

The leadership’s initial proposal for avoiding a partial government shutdown was to couple funding for federal programs with a requirement for the Senate to cast a vote on defunding the health care program, a requirement that could easily have been evaded.

Conservatives quickly rebelled against that approach, forcing Boehner and his lieutenants to regroup.

Even as they did, they sought to emphasize their commitment to cutting federal spending and curtailing the debt, two issues that have consistently united the fractious rank and file since Republicans took control of the House nearly three years ago.

“Not since the Korean War has the federal government reduced spending two years in a row. We aim to make that happen,” said the Republican majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia.  

Spending would be set at $986.3 billion for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, although that would be further reduced in January by a new round of across-the-board sequester cuts that would trim the level to $967 billion.

“There should be no conversation about shutting the government down. That’s not the goal here,” Boehner said.

Republicans paid a heavy political price two decades ago as the result of twin government shutdowns, at a time then-Speaker Newt Gingrich was insisting President Bill Clinton agree to cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and other popular programs.

Nor are Republicans eager to shoulder the blame for any market-shaking government default, which would probably occur if the Treasury could not continue to borrow funds to pay debts already incurred. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has estimated that without action by Congress, that default will arrive in mid-October.

———

Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Andrew Taylor and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this story.

For more on this story and other local news, subscribe to The Valdosta Daily Times e-Edition, or our print edition

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