After a summer of relative quiet on the fiscal front, Congress is approaching two deadlines that will be vital not just in terms of the U.S. economy, but for the future of the Republican party as well.
Sometime in late October, the federal government will once again reach its statutory debt limit, meaning that, without congressional action, the government will not be able to borrow any more money. That would require an immediate 25 percent cut in government spending — the sequester on steroids.
But before that, on September 30, the continuing resolution (CR) currently funding the federal government will expire. Unless a new CR is approved by then, the federal government will “shut down.”
The government does not actually shut down, of course. Military operations and homeland security, and also such things as air-traffic control, health care at Veterans Administration hospitals, law enforcement and criminal investigations, oversight of food and drug safety, nuclear safety, and so forth, will all continue. And programs that are not subject to annual appropriations, such as Social Security and Medicare, would also continue. But the optics of closed national parks, the complaints of those inconvenienced by delayed public services, and the president’s bully pulpit mean that Republicans will take the blame for whatever hardships do develop.
As a result, Republicans are already starting to twist themselves into knots trying to decide what they should do.
Some, such as would-be presidential candidate Representative Peter King of New York, are already running up the white flag. “We should not be closing down the government under any circumstances,” King told CNN, saying that refusing to approve a new continuing resolution wouldn’t be only bad politics but also “wrong” as a matter of policy.
Meanwhile, defense hawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have suggested they’re willing to go along with the Obama administration’s attempts to use the CR to undo the sequester. McCain, Graham, and their allies may even be willing to accept tax increases in order to roll back the sequester’s defense cuts.
But a much bigger split seems to be developing over what to do about defunding Obamacare.
The key to implementing Obamacare is not the now-delayed employer mandate or the wildly unpopular individual mandate. It is not the nearly $1.2 trillion in new taxes or the exchanges that may or may not be operational by their October 1 deadline. Rather, it is the $1.8 trillion in exchange subsidies and Medicaid expenses that the law will pay out over the next ten years.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that as many as 16 million Americans will be affected by those coverage provisions next year. The Obama administration knows that this will help cement a constituency for the health-care law, regardless of how big a train wreck the rest of the law becomes. Obamacare may cost taxpayers trillions of dollars, drive up the national debt, slow economic growth, and kill jobs. People may not be able to keep their current insurance and may have trouble keeping their doctor. But once millions of Americans begin to receive those subsidies, it will be all but impossible to undo.