The Great CR Debate of 2013

by Jonathan Strong
With the debt-ceiling fight looming, GOP lawmakers tussle over how best to fight Obamacare.

Last Tuesday morning, at 9 a.m. in a room deep within the bowels of the Capitol, Representative John Campbell was trying to determine whether the GOP leadership’s plan to fund the government would sink or swim.

“Some meetings like that, they present an idea, and it just gets blasted,” he says. “And you can just tell, walking out of the meeting, ‘Okay, this is not gonna fly.’”

Campbell, an affable and wealthy Californian who is leaving Congress at the end of this session and is eager to get ownership of his calendar back, has always had a knack for anticipating whether a deal can be struck. When it comes to the deliberations among House Republicans, he says, the key is to watch who is complaining.

“There are some people who tend to oppose anything leadership comes out with,” he says. “If they’re critical, that really doesn’t tell you anything. But if the others who aren’t the automatic ‘no’ people start to criticize, that gives you a message.”

On Tuesday, there were already worrisome signs.

The night before, Majority Leader Eric Cantor had brought a handful of influential House conservatives into the speaker’s ceremonial office right off the House floor to brief them on the plan. It wasn’t what the conservatives, who thought it would be a discussion about what to do, had in mind. Having sat through angry town halls, they were eager to deliver a message, but instead they listened to a plan they felt they had no say in.  

The next morning, minutes before Cantor was set to brief the House GOP, Senator Mike Lee of Utah ripped the proposal as a face-saving gimmick. But over on the House side, the vast majority of lawmakers had no idea what Cantor would say.

As the Virginia Republican took the floor, he began to explain his complicated plan to have the Senate vote on defunding Obamacare without actually forcing a showdown on the matter.

The House would vote on two separate proposals: The first would be a “clean” CR; the second would be a separate resolution editing the CR’s text (called an “enrollment correction”) to defund Obamacare. Then, under a tricky bit of parliamentarian mischief, the House would send only the enrollment correction to the Senate. Until they voted on it, the House would physically keep the clean CR in its possession.

It was a lot to process. Members in the room seemed to need time to absorb it. As they walked out of the meeting, surprisingly few members were ready to take a position. It wasn’t a revolt, but it wasn’t a slam dunk, either. “I didn’t come out of there with a feel — I couldn’t tell,” Campbell says.

But the situation was about to get worse for Cantor’s plan.

At 2:56 p.m., an e-mail from the Club for Growth hit the Hill. It said the Club, feared even by its greatest detractors, would be tallying how lawmakers vote on the measure and would put the tally on its voting scorecard, from which it assesses the conservative purity of lawmakers. But the vote the group would be scoring wasn’t the one on the underlying bill — it was on the rule that governs debate, a provocative act. Such “rule votes” are party-line affairs, and abandoning one’s party in this situation is highly unusual. Now, House Republicans would have to choose between their leadership and a powerful conservative force. To make matters worse, Heritage Action followed about an hour later, and then so did FreedomWorks and the Family Research Council.

Behind the scenes, members were pulling their hair out, asking all sorts of questions to understand how the convoluted Cantor plan would really work. The most pressing questions were about the tricky maneuver that involved physically keeping the House-passed bill until the Senate considered the enrollment correction. “That was the thing that was freaking people out,” a senior GOP aide says. “Because it was like, wait a minute, what does ‘consider’ mean? Can the Senate just take it up, not even vote on it, and that counts? Fifty-vote threshold? Sixty votes? And how can the Senate take up an enrollment correction to a bill that they don’t even have in their possession?”

The aide mockingly imagined how the Senate would react: “Oh, my God, we better consider that defund resolution here in the Senate, because we really want those papers from the House on the CR!”

At a House vote Tuesday, McCarthy had conducted the initial whip count to gauge where the conference was, and a significant majority of the House was on board with Cantor’s plan. Lots of Republicans hadn’t understood the plan at first, but many had come around when they heard more information.

But there were pockets of significant opposition. A Texas congressman says he couldn’t believe some of his fellow Texans who were against the proposal, given that Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, was helping lead the push.

Representative Jim Jordan, meanwhile, was on his cell phone. The Ohio Republican, a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, remains highly influential among conservatives, and he was teaming up with Representative Tom Graves of Georgia to chart another course on the matter. Jordan and Graves started to rally the troops against Cantor with a flurry of phone calls and meetings. The two began to get traction for using the CR to try to delay Obamacare for one year, a middle point between the Cantor plan and Lee’s desire to defund Obamacare.

At Wednesday-morning meetings between the leadership and conservatives — Jordan, Graves, Republican Study Committee chairman Steve Scalise, Luke Messer, and others were present — the discussion shifted. The two parties talked about ditching the Cantor plan and crafting a “unity bill,” a proposal they could all get behind. Around noon, Cantor faced the music and agreed to delay the vote, originally scheduled for Thursday, until at least next week.

At an RSC meeting at 12:30, members broke into roughly two camps, Campell says: those who wanted to use the CR to defund or delay Obamacare, and those who were open to bypassing the CR as long as leadership promised to use the upcoming debt-ceiling fight to go after the health-care law.

House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, part of a self-described “Jedi Council” of five conservatives who often advise leadership, was in the latter camp, urging colleagues to focus on the larger picture.

Later that day, Speaker John Boehner, who had been curiously absent from the discussions up until then, gave an offhand remark to reporters that revealed a surprisingly lackadaisical attitude about the intra-party battle. Asked if he had a new idea for funding the government, Boehner laughed and said no, according to Politico’s Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan. “Do you have an idea?” he asked. “They’ll just shoot it down anyway.”

Behind the scenes, the efforts to sell the plan had been all Cantor’s. “Whenever you heard around town that this plan was being pushed, it was always by the Cantor office,” says a GOP aide who supports the new Graves plan. “You never heard, ‘Hey I’m getting calls from the Boehner shop,’ or, ‘Hey, McCarthy’s guy is really leaning on me.’ You never heard that.”

By Thursday, it was becoming increasingly clear to the wider world that Cantor’s plan would at least have to be tweaked.

In a House-floor colloquy with Democratic whip Steny Hoyer, Cantor revealed that the House may cancel the recess scheduled for the last week of September. To insiders, the interpretation was obvious: We’re going to be in a spending showdown with Democrats over the CR that culminates September 30, when the law that currently funds the government will expire.

Boehner, in his weekly on-camera press briefing, drove a nail into the Cantor plan’s coffin. “Your conference rejected your latest proposal . . . ” began MSNBC’s Luke Russert.

“Not quite yet,” said Boehner, prompting chuckles from the reporters.

Later that day, Graves formally introduced his plan to push for a one-year Obamacare delay with 42 co-sponsors. Overnight, the list grew by seven.

Leadership is still pushing for Graves, Jordan, and others to focus on the upcoming debt-ceiling fight as the better opportunity to extract a GOP victory, so look for discussions in this all-important week to focus as much on that fight as on the CR.

While the situation remains fluid, the pervasive sentiment among Republicans is that Boehner and Obama are headed into a major confrontation over the CR, which will probably illuminate which would have been the better course: Graves’s ambition or Cantor’s prudence.

— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.