The Obamacare Fight May Not Be Over

Yesterday, Steve Benen wrote a post titled, “ACA repeal crusade over, ‘delusional folks notwithstanding’.” Here’s part of it:

Last year, Republican officials up and down the ballot argued the 2012 elections were the party’s last chance to derail the Affordable Care Act. Once they lost those elections, Republican officials declared, “Never mind what we said before; this budget fight really is our last chance to derail the Affordable Care Act.” And now they’ve lost this round, too.

There won’t be a third. The repeal crusade was a flop.

Sure, it’s possible congressional Republicans will vote a few more times to gut the law — at last count, I think we’re up to 46 repeal votes in the House — but it’s slowly dawning on the party that their dream will not be realized.

They can try to go through the motions in the months and years ahead, but it’s more likely to create eye-rolling than results.

I’m so tempted to agree with Benen. The law has been through so many challenges the past couple of years that it is just about set in stone. But I see one more possibility for how Republicans could derail it:

We’re two weeks into the open-enrollment period for Obamacare. This period lasts until March 31 and it’s the time when individuals can sign up for health insurance on the exchanges. On January 1st, Obamacare goes live and those health plans kick in. That’s when the law really starts. Right now, we’re still in the sign-up phase. So far, that sign-up phase has been an unmitigated disaster. If you’re an Obamacare supporter, you should be very, very concerned. By all accounts, the flaws in the online exchanges aren’t a result of traffic overload or glitches. They are much more systemic and widespread and will require a huge amount of work to get them operating properly. The Administration still has a lot of work to do.

In addition, the government shutdown has masked these problem. Some people think the problems are actually a result of the shutdown, which isn’t true. Once we’re past these fiscal fights, the media’s attention will turn to the mass problems with the exchanges. People will start realizing that there are serious issues here.

The question is how long they will last. If December comes and there are still issues, the Administration should become very worried that people will start seriously turning against the law. Of course, it will have nothing to do with the policy behind Obamacare, but a technical failure can still switch public opinion fast. If people lose faith that the government has the capability to implement it. they may give up. Imagine January 1st coming and people still having trouble signing up on healthcare.gov. That would be a colossal failure.

Two weeks after that, the continuing resolution in the Reid-McConnell plan expires. This would give Cruz and Co. yet another chance to try to spur grassroots support and demand a delay in Obamacare in exchange for funding the government. That plan blew up in their faces the last couple of weeks, but the Tea Party would have a lot more support this time around. Independents may start looking at those demand as reasonable if the exchanges are still having major troubles.

This is the final challenge for Obamacare: does it work? For months, the focus has been on rate-shock and whether the policy would help most Americans. Few people wondered whether the exchanges would actually function correctly. Now, that question is at the forefront of the debate. Under normal circumstances, a Democratic president and Democratic Senate would ensure that the law has plenty of time to work out its kinks, well past January 1st if necessary. They would accept the bad media coverage and keep working on healthcare.gov until they got it right. But the McConnell-Reid deal presents a potential opportunity for Cruz and the Tea Party to mount a grassroots effort that really could force the president to reexamine his greatest legislative achievement. It’s timed perfectly for Republicans to mount a serious challenge to defund or delay the law on legitimate grounds. The Administration ultimately controls the viability of this challenge, but the McConnell-Reid makes it possible. The Obamacare battles never seem to end.

Would Democrats Support a Six-Month Clean CR?

It seems like we are slowly inching towards a compromise between Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has issued a new offer that includes a nine-month debt ceiling hike, a six-week clean continuing resolution, a delay of the medical device tax, greater income verification for Obamacare subsidies, a formal budget process and a yet-to-be-decided Republican concession. It’s unclear what that concession will be. But if you take the Democrat’s position that they will not negotiate over the debt ceiling or a clean CR, here’s what the deal looks like from their perspective:

Republicans get:                                                           Democrats Get:

  • Delay of medical device tax                                        •  Unknown Concession
  • Greater income verification
  • Formal budget process

The clean CR and debt ceiling increase are not part of the deal as they were never negotiated upon (although Republicans can return to their constituents and say they broke Obama’s promise not to negotiate on the debt ceiling, even if it isn’t actually true). John Boehner will break the Hastert Rule and allow something like this to pass, because he knows we can’t default. That’s how Democrats envision the final deal, at the moment.

But Republicans are upset. They think that Democrats are moving the goal posts on them by demanding a six-week, instead of a six-month, CR. Here’s Sen. Lindsey Graham:

You can blame us, we’ve overplayed our hand, that’s for damn sure. But their response, where the president and [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] basically shutting everybody out, and when you try to negotiate, they keep changing the terms of the deal … it’s very frustrating.

So, what terms of the deal does Graham think Democrats changed? He doesn’t specify, but I think this all comes down to what Democrats thought they meant when they said they wanted a clean CR. They meant a CR that lasted six-weeks, or at least they are saying that’s what they meant. Republicans think Democrats meant that they would support a clean CR for any period of time. This is how Reid’s offer looks to them:

Republicans get:                                                           Democrats Get:

  • Delay of medical device tax                                       •  Six-week clean CR
  • Greater income verification                                        •  Unknown Concession
  • Formal budget process

This is the main sticking point right now. Republicans see the six-month CR as something Democrats said they would agree to by itself. Thus, the six-week continuing resolution is a concession for them. Meanwhile, Democrats see the opposite. The six-month clean CR would be a concession. When Democrats originally were calling for Republicans to open government, they didn’t say for how long. The House continually passed bills for six-week CRs that had absurd conditions on them. Democrats may have assumed that any CR would last for six weeks – but they never said so publicly (at least that I can find). Instead, they hammered the Republicans by telling them to pass a clean CR and reopen government, without any time horizon on those demands. Republicans want that clean CR to last six-months to lock in sequestration for longer. Democrats, of course, don’t.

There’s an easy way to figure out what Democrats would accept: Boehner could bring up a clean six-month CR in the House. Would Senate Democrats reject it? If so, it would contradict everything they have said about wanting Republicans to pass a clean CR. If they passed it, it would lock-in the cuts, a current goal of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Unfortunately for him, Boehner won’t bring such a bill to the floor due to the internal political dynamics of House Republicans.

Instead, McConnell has limited power to achieve a six-month CR. Americans overwhelmingly blame Republicans for the shutdown and the October 17 debt ceiling deadline is a few days away. He must make a deal and has limited leverage to do so. Meanwhile, Harry Reid truly believes that a six-month CR is not what Democrats meant when they said they’d support a clean CR. If he agreed to a deal with a six-month CR instead of a six-week one, this is how it would look to him and Senate Democrats:

Republicans get:                                                           Democrats Get:

  • Six-month clean CR                                                      •  Unknown Concession
  • Delay of medical device tax
  • Greater income verification
  • Formal budget process

That’s not acceptable to them. That’s the impasse we’re at now. It has nothing to do with Obamacare. Instead, it’s all about how long the clean CR should be and what Democrats meant when they said they wanted a clean CR. And the only person who can force Democrats to answer that question has his hands tied by extremists in his caucus. All as the clock slowly ticks towards a self-inflicted financial crisis.

It’s All About Obamacare

Wonkblog’s Ezra Klein penned a piece this morning that misses the main reason why we are rapidly heading towards a government shutdown. Klein compares the current negotiations over the continuing resolution to the ones that took place in 2011 and sees two main differences:

1) In 2011, the White House knew whom to deal with. Back then, House Speaker John Boehner actually did seem reasonably in sync with his party on these issues, and so the White House was able to negotiate with Republican leadership on a deal. Today, the relevant negotiations are happening in the Republican Party, with GOP leadership trying to fight conservatives who want to shut down the government, and no one knows who actually has the power to cut and close a deal.

2) In 2011, the White House was willing to deal. The White House believed, in its gut, that Republicans had been given a mandate in the 2010 elections to extract exactly the kind of concessions they were demanding. In addition, the White House believed President Obama would be a likelier bet for reelection if he could cut a “grand bargain” with the newly resurgent Republicans, taking their key issue away from them.

This year, it’s the White House that won the last election, and so they see no popular legitimacy behind Republican demands. In addition, they are deeply, fervently committed to the proposition that they will never again negotiate around the debt ceiling, as that’s a tactic history will judge them harshly for repeatedly enabling. So even if Boehner could cut a deal on the debt ceiling, the White House isn’t open to negotiating.

Both of those points are correct, but they obscure the fact that for House Republicans, these fiscal fights are all about Obamacare. That’s been the key all along.

There is an inherent contradiction in the Republican belief that Obamacare will be an unmitigated disaster and their desperate, politically suicidal attempts to defund the law. If the law is going to catastrophically fail, the Republican Party should have no problem waiting for that to happen and use it to take back the Presidency and Senate in 2016. If they really believe it will be such a disaster, then they shouldn’t threaten a government shutdown over it. But House Republicans are making that threat and many are willing to follow through on it. That indicates that Republicans are worried that Obamacare will succeed and that’s why yesterday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said, “this short-term budget represents our last chance to stop it.”

In fact, the Republican Pary’s last chance to stop the law was the 2012 election. This fight is over and Obama has won. He’s not going to delay the law or defund it, but House Republicans are so against it that they will do anything to stop it. As Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) said today, “Obamacare is worth throwing yourself on the sword.”

The GOP doesn’t care about cutting spending, approving the Keystone XL pipeline or cutting taxes. Right now, it’s all about Obamacare.

Two year ago, the White House and Republicans could negotiate with each other because both had something the other wanted and were willing to compromise (barely). The same is true today, but the White House will never, ever defund the law and House Republicans will not accept any deal that doesn’t do that.

That’s what really makes the 2013 showdown different from 2011.