With the pressure of the government shutdown bearing down on the GOP, Senator Ted Cruz and his allies who were pushing to defund Obamacare often put the question to their critics: What’s your strategy? Radio host Mark Levin, for example, raked Senator Ron Johnson over the coals in an October 9 interview, demanding to hear what his approach was.
In response to Levin, the Wisconsin Republican alluded to confidential discussions about an alternative plan. Now that the fight is over, he has walked me through a strategy that he and a small House–Senate working group put together in July that never came to fruition.
When I visited Johnson in his office in the Hart Senate Office Building, he had a sheet of paper on his desk on which each step of the would-be plan was laid out. He allowed me to review the document but wouldn’t let me take a copy with me when I left.
Step One, according to the document: The House passes a six-month continuing resolution. Attached to the CR is a one-year delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate and a one-year delay of the employer mandate, which President Obama later unilaterally suspended; a bill from the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, James Lankford of Oklahoma, to keep the government from shutting down in the event the funding laws expire; a bill from Representative Tom McClintock of California to give top priority to debt payments in order to avoid default amid a stalemate over the debt ceiling; and, finally, the so-called “Vitter amendment,” proposed by Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, to end a federal subsidy to congressional lawmakers and staff for purchasing their health care on the Obamacare exchanges.
Johnson and others supporting the strategy pushed hard for action on the first step in July, before Congress had departed for its August recess, which would have allowed Republicans to spend the month at home beating the messaging war drum.
Step Two: Harry Reid rejects the plan and passes a CR without any of the attached policies.
Step Three: Coming back from the August recess, Republicans make what Johnson calls a “strategic retreat.” We’ve heard the Democrats, the GOP lawmakers would say: They won’t touch Obamacare, so we’re removing the demands to delay the individual and employer mandates. The Republicans would cast their position as trying to prevent a government shutdown, prevent default on the debt, and remove a special perk for Congress.
At that point the Republicans would hold firm, watching public opinion and hoping the Democrats would buckle, going along with what were relatively modest demands.
Had Obama and Reid capitulated at that point, Obamacare would still be the law of the land. But the small victories would have put Republicans in a better position going forward for the next showdown, whenever that might be.
The Lankford bill, for example, would have continued government spending at current levels in the absence of a funding law but slowly ratchet down spending levels as a trigger to force agreement — on the GOP’s terms. The McClintock bill would have taken the most calamitous consequence of the debt ceiling off the table, allowing it to be used as a forcing mechanism without a threat to the global economy.
The path instead chosen by Speaker John Boehner, after he was forced against his will into using the CR to wage a do-or-die fight over Obamacare, was attaching full defunding of the health-care law to the CR.
At that point in the debate, top House conservatives such as Tom Graves of Georgia and Jim Jordan of Ohio were pushing to frame the issue as a matter of delaying rather than defunding. But it’s unclear whether anything but defunding would have had the 218 GOP votes needed to pass on the House floor as an opening bid, given Cruz’s success at galvanizing the grassroots over the August recess.
In any event, the die was cast. Republicans were attempting to defund what Nancy Pelosi has called the “crown jewel” of Democratic domestic-policy achievements via a stopgap funding bill.