Majority Leader Eric Cantor spent 90 percent of a presentation to House Republicans in the Capitol basement this morning explaining and defending his convoluted plan to force the Senate to vote on defunding Obamacare before eventually allowing the upper chamber to send a “clean” CR to President Obama.
Towards the end, however, he dropped a big piece of news about the House Republican strategy heading into the next fiscal fight — over raising the debt ceiling. To increase the debt ceiling, Cantor said, Republicans will demand a one-year delay to Obamacare.
It was the first definitive announcement regarding what, specifically, the House will demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, and a big reason that some of the typical conservative hardliners came out of the meeting relatively placid.
“We think that as this thing is implemented there’s going to be an outcry, and that’s when the delay comes in,” said Representative John Fleming of Lousiana, who supports the plan.
That’s not to say that everyone is happy about Cantor’s CR idea, which will mean passing the funding bill under a House “rule” that forces the Senate to vote on defunding Obamacare before they can pass the CR itself.
Senator Mike Lee, who proposed the original defund-Obamacare strategy in July, ripped Cantor’s proposal as a “face-saving” measure that could actually rebound against the GOP politically.
“It is not a plan to defund Obamacare. It’s a plan to facilitate the passage of a CR in a way that allows people to claim that they’re defunding Obamacare without actually doing so,” Lee told me.
Inside the House conference meeting, most lawmakers were hearing about the complicated plan for the first time, and they didn’t have much to say about it on exiting.
“I will look at the direction he’s heading and decide whether it’s the best way or not,” said Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, who’s locked in a heated three-way primary battle for the Republican nomination for his state’s open Senate seat.
“I’m listening to it and looking at it carefully,” said Representative Jeb Hensarling, often considered an elder statesman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “I just heard it,” said Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the Budget Committee and top GOP strategist on spending fights.
Inside the meeting, about ten lawmakers spoke up, but only three expressed their outright opposition to the plan. Considering that these meetings can sometimes prompt 30 lawmakers or more to the microphone queues, it’s not exactly a volcanic reaction.
But it is already ticking off the outside groups and key architects of the strategy.
Senator Lee argues Cantor’s plan is almost worse than if House GOP leaders had simply decided to pass a “clean” CR on its own, since it seems to assume that proponents of the strategy will be fooled by a fairly transparent gimmick. What’s worse: The vote will give vulnerable Senate Democrats up for reelection a chance to vote “for” defunding Obamacare, even while knowing the effort, which will undoubtedly need 60 votes, is doomed to fail.
“When you sell it as a face-saving measure, you’re admitting that it’s a face-saving measure,” Lee says, adding that it’s part of a pattern this year of House leaders’ promising to fight another day.
Lee launched the push to defund Obamacare with the CR in July. After taking to the Senate floor, he brought about ten senators and roughly 20 representatives of outside conservative groups into the conference room in his office to pitch them the plan.
Republican senators at the meeting included Ted Cruz, Pat Toomey, Ron Johnson, Jim Inhofe, Marco Rubio, Mike Enzi, Jeff Flake, and Jim Risch.
Lee then took the pitch to other conservative forums, such as the weekly Weyrich meeting and Groundswell, a fairly new and highly secretive strategy group.
The idea caught fire among the grassroots and prompted national tours by some of the outside groups, but never convinced House leadership, who gingerly tried to keep the idea from gaining traction inside the House conference.
Indeed, the surprising part of Cantor’s proposal was that it wasn’t simply a clean CR that completely repudiated the idea. And the defunders may be able to count another victory, too: Leadership might not have embraced even an Obamacare delay for the debt ceiling without the push Lee made.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.