The Republican House leadership is not out of the woods yet.
The House GOP’s conference call last week turned “ugly,” in the words of one Republican on the call, after Speaker John Boehner announced his intention to pursue a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government, hinting it would not use the bill to pick a fight over the implementation of Obamacare.
Representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, one of about a dozen voices who said they were feeling the heat back home, told Boehner to “go back to the drawing board.”
“We hear it in our town halls, we hear it our one-on-one meetings with constituents. We hear it when we’re at county fairs or events we’ve attended during the August recess, of which there are many. And the message all over the country, at least as relayed by members on that phone call, is that this is the overriding issue that is being discussed. Way more than immigration, way more than the debt,” says Representative Cynthia Lummis, who spoke up on the call herself.
Leadership sources say those who spoke up weren’t representative of the entire GOP conference. “We haven’t seen any indication of a broad groundswell,” says a top aide. So far, the division has occurred mainly on the right of the conference, splitting the most hardcore conservatives. In private, many other Republicans are pulling their hair out over the push by Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee to use the CR as a do-or-die Obamacare fight.
One example of where the fissure line is: A letter calling on leadership to use the CR to defund Obamacare authored by Representative Mark Meadows split the “Jedi Council,” a secretive group of top conservatives helping Boehner sketch a debt-ceiling strategy. Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise signed the letter, while Paul Ryan, Tom Price, and Jeb Hensarling did not.
Another example: A “Repeal Coalition” e-mail list-serv dedicated to the topic of stopping the health-care law, populated by top right-wing wonks at think tanks and on the Hill, has lit up with debate over past weeks, sometimes generating “30 to 40 e-mails an hour,” according to one participant (he had to begin filtering the messages to a separate folder). The strategy has deeply split the group, whose existence is dedicated to repealing the law.
A coalition of outside groups are currently canvassing the nation on a defund-Obamacare tour — Heritage Action and Club For Growth both recently abstained from publicly supporting a Obamacare-replacement bill introduced by Price, saying that only the full repeal of the law in the CR is an acceptable strategy from their perspective.
Lummis is flexible about how exactly to pursue cutting off Obamacare.
“I’m okay with attaching it to a debt ceiling, or a CR, or anything else, as long as we do it sooner rather than later,” she says. “The issue is timing!”
Circumstances entirely out of the GOP’s control are going to force a fight sooner rather than later: Treasury secretary Jacob Lew said in a letter Tuesday that the debt ceiling will need to be raised in mid October, only two weeks after the government will run out of funding. That’s probably an acceptable period of delay for even the fiercest “defund it” proponents, making the debt-ceiling showdown another leverage point.
Ryan, the House budget chairman, is currently preparing a “menu” of options that could be presented to the president, each of which would correspond with increasing the debt ceiling for variable amounts of time.
This fall’s fight will be the first major spending showdown between Boehner and Obama since the “fiscal cliff” battle around New Year’s and a test of Boehner’s leadership. The fiscal-cliff drama prompted a failed coup attempt on Boehner; nothing since then has tested the shaky GOP conference like the debt-ceiling fight will. If the conference call is any indication, buckle up for a wild ride ahead.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.