Senate GOP Gamesmanship On Obamacare Defunding Is Not Honorable

by Andrew C. McCarthy

On Sunday evening, we discussed the debate on defunding Obamacare – specifically, whether Senate Republicans were being disingenuous in their claim to support defunding. While arguing that Republicans were engaged in sleight-of-hand, I conceded that the GOP’s calculation that avoiding a government shutdown outweighs defunding Obamacare is not “frivolous.” Ramesh proceeded to inflate this concession, paraphrasing me as having described this calculation as “perfectly honorable.”

That is not what I said. Non-frivolous and honorable are not synonyms, and there is nothing honorable about the ongoing political game of posing as an ardent defunding supporter while voting in a manner that guarantees Obamacare will get funded.

A quick perusal of my “non-frivolous” acknowledgment shows that Ramesh’s “perfectly honorable” interpretation is a contortion. Here’s what I said (italics added):

While I disagree with Republicans who oppose the defunding strategy, I don’t think the calculation that there may be more to lose than to gain is frivolous. I just think the people who’ve made that calculation should have been honest about it from the start. Instead, they voted to defund Obamacare until . . . it mattered.

So, acknowledging that a political calculation shrouded in dishonest posturing is non-frivolous somehow makes it “perfectly honorable”? That does not make sense to me, but it does reflect how Republican leaders rationalize their dizzying approach to Obamacare.

There is nothing honorable in the legerdemain we discussed on Sunday: The GOP’s unanimous and ostentatious support only six months ago for a defunding amendment when the vote was just a pose, followed today by the belittling of defunding legislation as “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard” — to borrow the words of Senator Burr, who co-sponsored the March defunding amendment – because this time the legislation is accompanied a plan to achieve the stated objective.

On that score, GOP-establishment sympathizers contend that there is nothing inconsistent in supporting defunding as a goal but disfavoring the tactics by which the goal is sought. That is conveniently Solomonic. I’ll put aside some constitutional problems with the ongoing drama (to be addressed in a separate post). To get defunding enacted into law necessarily requires orchestrating a situation in which intense political pressure can be brought to bear that induces some Democrats to vote for it and President Obama to perceive it as in his interests to sign it. This is far from impossible; indeed, it’s been done before (see, e.g., extension of the Bush tax cuts). But short of the specter of a government shutdown, where was that kind of pressure possibly going to come from? If you are against the only conceivable means of achieving a goal, your vote for the goal is a pose; it is not real support.

If the GOP establishment’s position is that government shutdowns damage the potential for Republican success in the next few election cycles, and that electoral success is the only way to stop Obamacare, then the honorable move would be to vote in favor of funding Obamacare so voters know where Republicans really stand.

In light of the GOP-establishment position that the defunding strategy is implausible, though, a question arises. House conservatives and the Cruz-Lee Senate contingent are pushing the “defund now” strategy because, they very convincingly argue, once Obamacare subsidies start to kick a week from now, there will be no realistic possibility of repealing Obamacare – it will be, like Medicare, permanent. The Republican establishment may not like the “defund now” strategy, but are they seriously telling us that Republicans will be in a position to repeal Obamacare four or six years from now? Really? Ted Cruz’s strategy is no sure thing, but it sounds a lot more plausible to me than the notion that Republicans, the guys who ran in 2012 as saviors of Medicare, are going to have the nerve to scrap Obamacare subsidies that are, by then, years old. I’d sooner believe they’d want credit for preserving Obamacare goodies.

Finally, there is nothing honorable about Senate GOP leaders’ current pose of vigorous support for defunding Obamacare while simultaneously announcing their intention to vote in favor of a procedural rule – “cloture,” the ending of debate – that Republicans well know will guarantee that Obamacare is fully funded.

Republican leaders are banking on the public’s understandable disinterest in the Senate’s abstruse procedural rules in order to pull off this fraud. Cloture requires 60 votes – meaning the Senate’s 46 Republicans can deny Democrats the margin necessary to end debate. But Republicans say they will vote with the Democrats on this “merely procedural” step. Here’s the key: Under Senate rules, (a) the end of debate does not mean the end of amendments, and (b) those amendments only require a simple majority to pass. Thus, once debate has ended, as Republicans well know, Majority Leader Harry Reid will propose an amendment to restore the Obamacare funding that the House has stripped. Democrats will then pass that amendment.

A vote for cloture is not a merely procedural formality. In essence, a vote for cloture is a vote to fund Obamacare.

And here’s the kicker: Republicans who vote for cloture get a double dip. First, they will say (as Senator McConnell did today) that they are voting to end debate because they are anxious to vote in support of the House measure that defunded Obamacare – even though they well know their cloture vote will inexorably lead to Reid’s amendment to undo the House defunding measure. Second, when Reid proposes his certain-to-pass amendment to restore Obamacare funding, they will vote against it, a nay vote they will wear on their sleeves to show the folks back home that they opposed defunding – even though they well know their collusion with Democrats on cloture is what allowed Reid to restore Obamacare funding.

That may be someone’s idea of honorable. It is not mine.