By Ben Terris
September 16, 2013
The drumbeat has already started.
"GOP split over health care law boosts threat of a government shutdown," says the Los Angeles Times.
"A Government Shutdown Just Got More Likely," BusinessWeek said on Sept. 11.
"No Clear Path in Congress Avoiding a Shutdown," NBC said on their website the next day.
It makes for an exciting story—albeit one that we've heard many times recently—but the general consensus, both from outside experts and Republican leaders, is that it's just not going to happen. Yet.
"I'm very confident in my belief that a shutdown will not happen," said a Republican leadership aide. "I'm not going to rule out the chance that it ever does. But the leadership team and overwhelming number of our members do not want to shut down the government."
Politically, Republican leaders know it's in their best interest not to have the government shut down. A new poll from CNN found that the majority of the country would blame them, not Democrats, if such a thing were to happen. That is certainly part of the pitch from top Republicans to their members. They also want their colleagues to think of passing a budget bill—one that keeps sequester-levels of spending intact—as a victory in and of itself.
And as for fighting for such trophies as delaying or defunding Obamacare, Republican leadership aides say that all they really need is just a bit more time to convince the holdouts that there's a better moment to have that fight.
"If you're looking to partially defund or delay the health care law, or individual mandate, or try and force spending cuts, it seems like, given the timing and lay of the land right now, the better place is on the debt limit," said another top Republican staffer.
Why? Partly because it gives GOP lawmakers time to rally around a plan. It also has to do with messaging. Many sophomore and freshman Republicans got themselves elected by castigating the country's borrowing habits. For them, it's better to fight about that than to look like a group of people who can't even keep the government's doors open.
That doesn't mean it's going to be easy, though. It hasn't been so far.
After returning from a monthlong vacation, lawmakers debated nothing but a possible military strike against Syria, leaving very little room for discussions about funding the government. By the time House Majority Leader Eric Cantor came up with a plan for such a funding bill, he and the leadership team couldn't garner enough support from Republicans to even bring it up for a vote. The problem was, conservatives didn't feel Cantor's bill made a real enough effort to defund Obamacare. While the vast majority of Cantor's colleagues supported his plan, it would only take a small fraction of opposition to derail it.
The vote was put on hold, but House Speaker John Boehner hinted at a press conference that the plan is still to try and sell Cantor's proposal—or something like it—to his members. When a reporter implied that such a course of action had been rejected, the speaker winked and said: "Not quite yet."
It's going to be tough to get Cantor's plan approved by 218 Republicans. Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia has come out with a bill—cosigned by about 50 members and counting—that would fund the government for a year while stripping away funding for Obamacare until 2015.
"Our conference is unifying on this in ways I haven't seen in a long time," he said about his bill, which would surely be dead-on-arrival in the Senate. "We have found the sweet spot that keeps the government open and keeps away the harmful effects of Obamacare."
But even as Graves whips up support for his own bill, some top conservatives admit there may be other ways to go about achieving their goals.
"There are a lot of tools in our tool chest, whether it's the CR or the debt ceiling," said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., whose job as the chairman of the Republican Study Committee makes him an influential figure among the House's most conservative members. "There's no one way to get this done. We are not married to one plan."
With neither Democrats or Republicans having had much time to prepare for battle, with the debt ceiling just around the corner, and with another possible government funding fight kicked to December, the best time for a knockdown brawl over spending and healthcare may be a little bit later.
"We are much more concerned about a shutdown later in the year," said Sean West, the director of U.S. political risk at the Eurasia Group, a consultancy that specializes in forecasting political developments. "Neither side is well positioned to weather the fall out of a shutdown at this stage."
If this September story line all seems too predictable, just stay tuned. Even if conservatives agree to fund the government for a couple of months, it could set up a very climactic December.
"If you think conservatives are mad now, just wait until there's a second CR," West said. "They will have been steamrolled by the first one, and probably mad by how the debt ceiling went. That's why the risk is higher then."
By Ben Terris
September 16, 2013