On the surface, the House GOP was in pep-rally mode as they headed into one of their most serious conflicts with President Obama since Republicans took the House in 2010.
Lawmakers have been bragging about the unity behind closed doors since Speaker John Boehner embraced the strategy of trying to defund Obamacare through the government-funding bill. And at a rally after the vote, dozens of lawmakers cheered lustily as Majority Leader Eric Cantor delivered a remarkably political speech that specifically targeted a series of vulnerable Senate Democrats up for reelection.
Underneath the surface, the same fault lines are still there and will inevitably come back to the fore.
Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania asked a pointed question to colleagues at the closed-door GOP conference meeting Friday morning. Sure, he said, we’re treating Speaker John Boehner like it’s Palm Sunday — laying down palm fronds and carrying him into Jerusalem.
“But will be be crucifying him a week from now?” Kelly asked.
For at least a few days, the fight will be in the Senate, where Senator Ted Cruz is starting to rally colleagues to filibuster the House bill for fear that Reid will strip its provision defunding Obamacare from it.
“Any Republican who votes for cloture is voting to fund Obamacare,” Matt Hoskins, the executive director for the Senate Conservatives Fund, said in a press release.
Yesterday, several Republicans — Bob Corker, John Cornyn, and Richard Burr — said they would vote to invoke cloture, given that when the vote occurs, it is likely to be on an intact House bill that includes the defunding provision.
Assuming Reid successfully detaches the Obamacare provision from the CR and sends it back to the House, Boehner and Cantor will face several difficult decisions.
In the meeting today, Boehner told lawmakers not to expect that the House would simply accept the bill Reid sends back. Although Boehner didn’t specify what Reid might do, the Nevada Democrat could tinker with funding levels or anything else in ways that would be unpalatable to the House GOP.
The more serious question is whether the House GOP’s right flank will accept transferring the fight over Obamacare to the debt ceiling, which the House plans to vote on for the first time next week amid the CR brinksmanship.
A very significant majority of Republicans will be fine with that, as will many of the senior conservatives. But some key players, including Representative Tom Graves of Georgia, who led the charge against Cantor’s original CR proposal, aren’t saying in public what they’ll do.
For example, Representative Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, a freshman firmly encamped with the most resolute of the hardliners, refused to comment on the GOP’s debt-ceiling plans when walking out of a meeting for which the stated purpose was to discuss the debt ceiling.
“There’s a lot to learn; right now I’m just focused on the CR,” he said.
If Boehner can successfully transition the Obamacare fight to the debt ceiling, allowing him to get a relatively clean CR through the House and staving off a shutdown, the higher-stakes debt-ceiling fight will likely pull Republicans apart on strategy questions once again.
Very few Republicans privately believe Obama will agree to delay the entirety of Obamacare for any length of time, but there is much discussion he may go for delaying the individual mandate, the medical-device tax, or other unpopular provisions.
In that case, many Republicans will want to claim victory and move on, but there will inevitably be voices of dissent who want to push the issue further towards the brink.
“I’ve not heard anyone dare to articulate, here’s what we really want at the end of the day,” said Representative James Lankford, the fifth ranking member of GOP leadership as policy chairman.
For now, the Republican civil war is in a brief reprieve, at least on the House side.