The GOP's filibuster folly on Obamacare

Obamacare remains deeply unpopular with voters, but the GOP’s attempt to derail it by engineering a temporary government shutdown will likely backfire.

In 1968, the early days of what became a legendary career as a war correspondent, Peter Arnett filed a story for Associated Press containing a quote that came to evoke the nihilism at the heart of America’s engagement in Vietnam.  “It became necessary,” an unnamed US Major told Arnett of a village called Bến Tre in the Mekong Delta, “to destroy the town to save it.”

Flip the year to 2013, the town to Washington DC, and the source to any one of hundreds of “senior Congressional aides”, and those ten chilling words neatly sum up the rationale behind the faction of the Republican Party determined to bring the US government to a standstill on October 1.  Whether or not they succeed will determine the shape of US domestic politics for the foreseeable future.

Last week, the House passed a continuing resolution to keep funding the federal government in the absence of a proper Budget deal.  This in itself is not unusual – in fact, the US government has been lurching from one CR to the next over many years.  This year is different because Republicans in the House of Representatives have included in the Bill a provision to defund the implementation of 
Obama’s signature healthcare reforms known as Obamacare.  

Most of the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act – its official but almost always neglected title – commence on October 1, including the state-based health insurance exchanges that promise to provide affordable coverage for millions of uninsured Americans through a delicate mix of subsidies, incentives, new taxes and cost savings.

Republicans detest Obamacare, and the House has cast more than 40 symbolic votes to repeal it since 2009. Much of their opposition to Obamacare among US conservatives stems from this sincerely held view that big national entitlement programs are fiscally reckless and unconstitutional.  As always, raw politics plays an outsized role.

Thanks in large part to the GOP’s unyielding attacks, Obamacare remains deeply unpopular with voters. An NBC News poll in July showed only 34 per cent of Americans agree with the law.  But shrewd GOP strategists understand these numbers offer false comfort because, once in place, entitlement programs invariably rise in popularity.

Despite the best efforts of movie star Ronald Reagan, who fronted a nationwide campaign decrying Lyndon Johnson’s plan to publicly fund healthcare for the elderly as Marxist, Medicare passed into law in 1965. Today, much like its namesake in Australia, even minor suggested reforms create storms of protest.   Alongside Social Security, Medicare is off limits, severely curtailing Republican efforts to lower taxes and reduce the size of government. If the roll-out of Obamacare has the desired effect of reducing healthcare costs for families while improving coverage — and it’s anybody’s guess whether it will — it could become politically unviable for Republicans to repeal.

Given that context, the GOP strategy to derail the law prior to its implementation makes sense — until you factor in how futile these efforts are bound to be.  The Senate will not pass a continuing resolution that defunds Obamacare and, even if they did, Obama would issue a presidential veto quicker than you can say “he’s already won re-election”.  

Establishment Republicans like Senators John McCain and Bob Corker understand that hijacking the budget process to grandstand on Obamacare is a hiding to nothing, and will join Democrats to support an alternative continuing resolution without the defunding provision.

The Tea Party and its echo chamber in talkback radio and cable news want nothing short of a fight to the death.  When one of their own, Texas Senator and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, made the obvious point last week that there aren't the votes to repeal Obamacare, he was branded a gutless apostate and vilified for days.

Eager not to lose favour among this powerful segment of the 2016 electorate, Cruz now promises to lead a filibuster against the Senate resolution. Such a move will force more moderate Republican Senators to decide whether to support Cruz’s efforts —  helping trigger a government shutdown in the process — or join Democrats to end the filibuster and risk opprobrium from the party’s enraged base.  Enough will choose the latter path to ensure the bill’s passage, setting up a showdown with the House.

This is when the blinking competition starts in earnest.  Will Speaker John Boehner, an establishment figure through and through but beholden to a radical caucus, bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote, allowing a combination of Democrats and Republicans to avert a government shutdown over the shouts of the Tea Party? Or, egged on from his right and fearful of losing his job, will he stand firm and reject outright any budget resolution that contains any money for Obamacare?

It is a fateful decision. Opinion polls and past history make clear it will be Republicans, and not President Obama, who cop the lion’s share of blame among voters for any temporary shutdown of the federal government. Public outrage at the 1995 shutdown engineered by then Speaker Newt Gingrich helped secure Bill Clinton’s easy re-election the following year.

Obama understands this history and, even if it didn’t involve a threat to his cherished healthcare reforms, there is no incentive for him to succumb to pressure from the House. A shutdown could greatly improve the Democratic Party’s odds of making gains, or at least minimising losses, in the 2014 mid-term elections.

Phil Quin is a New York based consultant and freelance writer and former advisor to Gareth Evans and Steve Bracks. He can be found on twitter at @philquin

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