How Purity Undermined the Vitter Strategy

by John Fund

Conservatives will debate the lessons of the 2013 government shutdown for a long time. Here’s one of the last ones: When the call for retreat has been made, it’s still possible to salvage something.

Yesterday, key members of the House GOP leadership had decided to add Louisiana senator David Vitter’s amendment stripping Congress of the special health-care contributions legislators and their staff had under Obamacare to whatever the House sends over to the Senate. They concluded forcing Democrats to vote on it made good political and strategic sense: It would embarrass Democrats if they struck it down, and if it stood, it would improve conservative leverage in future negotiations. The reason? Members of Congress and their staffs really hate the idea of losing their taxpayer-funded health-care benefits (valued at up to $5,000 a year for individuals and $11,000 for families) when they go to shop on the health-care exchanges. In the Senate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had declared his intention to demand a vote on the Vitter amendment no matter what the final shape of any budget or debt deal.

President Obama astutely realized the implications of such a vote; he, after all, had ordered the exemption issued last August. So, yesterday, he issued a preemptive veto threat to try to discourage any attempt to tack Vitter’s amendment onto any resolution of the debt-ceiling/shutdown fight. Liberals realized how difficult it would be for members to vote against ending the special exemption and, were the measure to pass, how great the incentive then would be among Democrats to delay implementation of Obamacare (and thus be able to also keep their own health-care plans).

But conservatives also contributed to the failure of the Vitter strategy. Heritage Action, followed by FreedomWorks, announced they would urge a No vote on the package ending the congressional exemption. By “key voting” the issue, the conservative groups made it less likely that GOP members of Congress would cast a vote that might draw a primary challenge.

The groups opposed the measure because it would be part of a package that continued almost no reforms of Obamacare or the federal budget. True enough, but losing the chance to include the Vitter amendment was a tactical mistake. “They chose to protect a congressional special subsidy, demand reforms that had failed repeatedly, spare Democrats a difficult vote, kill an alternate conservative strategy, and likely leave us worse off,” says Heather Higgins, president of Independent Women’s Voice, whose polls showed 92 percent of the American people opposed any congressional exemption from Obamacare.

It’s an old cliche that it’s usually unwise “to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In this case, the final surrender of  House and Senate Republicans had little good in it. But pushing for a vote on the Vitter amendment would have given conservatives something they could have used as a cudgel against Democrats and establishment Republicans who voted against it. A failure of imagination has for now taken that opportunity away.

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