Boehner’s Six-Week Extension Puts Focus Back on Obamacare Fight

by Jonathan Strong

In front of the cameras, Speaker John Boehner has sold his decision to embrace a short-term debt ceiling extension as meeting President Obama “half way.” But the origin of the plan suggets it’s more ambitious than it is modest.

“I actually proposed this idea to Eric Cantor two days ago,” Idaho representative Raul Labrador tells me. “I was seeing that the two issues” — the continuing resolution and the debt ceiling – ”were being conflated, that they were all coming together . . . I wanted to make sure that we separated the two issues so we could continue to fight on Obamacare on the CR and continue to fight on entitlement reform on the debt ceiling,” he adds.

Seen that way, the decision is not about giving ground but simply delaying one fight to dig in on the other. Labrador and the other conservatives who championed it in recent days, including Heritage Action’s president Michael Needham and RedState founder Erick Erickson, want to achieve an Obamacare victory on the CR and then an entitlement-reform victory on the debt ceiling. In the meeting, Labrador spoke in favor of the plan, as did Representative Michele Bachmann.

Republican leadership, broadly speaking, has been pushing to focus on the debt-ceiling fight since the spring. But since Senator Ted Cruz’s push for a do-or-die fight over Obamacare and risk a government shutdown caught fire with the grassroots over the summer, Boehner has been outflanked at every turn. First conservatives shot down the “Cantor plan” to pass a clean CR, then they objected to passing a debt-ceiling bill in the days before the government shut down, and now they are pushing the debt ceiling out of the way to focus on Obamacare and the CR.

When the decision came down from Boehner Wednesday night to embrace the short-term debt ceiling increase, some Republicans close to leadership were furious. “Death Star is blowing up,” deadpanned one Republican member, calling it the “Erickson plan.”

From the leadership perspective, the shutdown is deeply hurting Republicans politically. And the polls are backing this up. The GOP’s approval rating in a Gallup poll fell ten points from September, before the shutdown began, to 28 points, the lowest favorable rating for either political party since the firm began asking the question in 1992. In the conference meeting, several members said they were feeling the heat. Representative Tom Reed of New York told the conservatives that those like him, in marginal districts, were weathering the shutdown in order to get to the fight they wanted, and that they should back the short-term debt ceiling increase in kind.

Meanwhile, raising the debt ceiling sparks a visceral opposition among the public, who think about the issue as akin to racking up credit-card debt with little heed for the future.

House Budget chairman Paul Ryan, Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp, and the leadership had been discussing an escape hatch that would have traded modest entitlement reforms, a tax-reform “mechanism,” and a token Obamacare win for both the CR and the debt ceiling. Those can all still be discussed in a budget conference Boehner hopes to initiate at the White House this afternoon, but the shutdown will continue to go on, potentially for weeks.

If there’s any solace for Boehner’s allies, it’s that Obama has been botching the shutdown politically. Few things could reduce his appearance of reasonableness better than constantly carping about how he refuses to negotiate. (A smarter play probably would have been to pretend to negotiate while refusing to budge an inch.)

In the meantime, the Cruz faction in the House, led for the moment by Labrador, continues to hold sway.

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