Conservative Republicans in the House appear ready to back off their demands that the short-term funding resolution Congress must pass to avoid a government shutdown also defund or delay Obamacare.
In a shift that could spare John Boehner a damaging uprising from his majority's right wing, conservatives have begun to acknowledge their lack of leverage in the funding debate and are now coalescing around the House speaker's preferred strategy of forcing the White House to accept health-law changes by holding the debt ceiling hostage.
Still, Republicans are searching for some concessions that might allow them to escape the debate over the continuing resolution with a scaled-down policy victory.
In a private conference call Tuesday night, talk among conservatives centered on using the funding bill to "chip away" at Obamacare rather than defund it entirely, according to one senior GOP aide familiar with the conversation. "People were very cautious," the aide said, noting the change in tone and language. "There was not an enormous amount of fight from members."
Indeed, according to several lawmakers and GOP aides familiar with House Republicans' recent strategy sessions, lawmakers have abruptly shifted from swinging for the fences to playing small ball – dropping demands that the bill defund the program and instead calling for conservative policy riders to be pasted onto the Senate CR.
"We're closer to the deadline, so folks start thinking differently as our options narrow," explained Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota.
Boehner will outline those remaining options on Thursday morning, when House Republicans gather to discuss how they'll respond when the Senate, as expected, returns the spending bill to the House with Obamacare funding intact.
One lawmaker described Boehner's approach as a "one-two punch" to defeat the Affordable Care Act.
According to GOP lawmakers and aides, it involves adding a package of conservative policy provisions to the continuing resolution the Senate approves. The two likeliest provisions are measures that repeal the medical device tax (which enjoys some bipartisan support and would represent a substantive blow to the law itself) and ban subsidies under the health law for federal lawmakers and their staff members (which lawmakers think would earn media attention but amount to little more than a symbolic political victory.)
While a small group of conservatives wants to send back to the Senate a new CR that delays Obamacare for a year, lawmakers know there's no time for that if they want to avoid a shutdown. Notably, there seems to be no discussion of re-inserting the original language to defund Obamacare and sending back to the Senate the same CR it will have just rejected – an approach some House Republicans were agitating for as recently as last week.
The second step in Boehner's plan involves the debt-ceiling – specifically, Republicans demanding a one-year delay in the implementation of Obamacare in exchange for extending the nation's borrowing limit before the Treasury Department runs out of money to pay the country's bills on Oct. 17.
Several influential conservatives, led by Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, have been encouraging their House colleagues to approach the CR and debt-ceiling episodes as two fronts in the same war against Obamacare. This would afford House Republicans some flexibility to say they are attacking Obamacare from several different angles, they argue, while also helping to save face after the Senate disposes of their proposal to defund the health care law.
If Boehner can convince rank-and-file conservatives that a one-year delay of Obamacare will be the centerpiece of their debt-ceiling plan – and show them legislative text on Thursday – House aides expect a majority of members to accept defeat on their defunding effort and work quickly toward securing some smaller, health care-related concessions on the CR.
The debt-ceiling vote in the House is expected as soon as Friday, strategically timed to give Republicans a vote in favor of a one-year Obamacare delay before voting on whatever revised CR proposal the House pursues.