WASHINGTON – America may be about to get a lesson in theoretical physics – what exactly does happen when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
The unstoppable force, of course, is the effort by House Republicans, spurred on by various conservatives and the Tea Party movement, to defund Obamacare in the continuing resolution needed to keep the government operating beyond the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30.
The immovable object is President Obama and his Democratic allies in the Senate who insist they won’t even consider a provision in the CR that endeavors to gut the Affordable Health Care Act, the most significant achievement of Obama’s five-year term.
House Republicans took the first step Friday, delivering a spending plan that defunds Obamacare to the Senate. Only two Democrats voted for the GOP’s CR in the 230-189 vote: Reps. Jim Matheson of Utah and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, who controls the flow of legislation to the upper chamber’s floor, wasn’t impressed. During a press conference Thursday in advance of the House vote, Reid said, “In case there is any double in the minds of our House counterparts, I want to be absolutely crystal clear — any bill that defunds Obamacare is dead. Dead.”
And that’s where things stand. If the two sides prove unable to reach a compromise by the Sept. 30 deadline, many services provided by the federal government will cease. Federal projects will be delayed, national parks will close and hundreds of thousands of government workers face temporary layoffs. The fate of Social Security checks and Veterans Administration services will be in limbo.
It’s very possible therefore that the federal government may close its doors for the first time since President Bill Clinton vetoed the spending plan dispatched to him by a Republican-led Congress in 1995. Political observers at the time maintain Clinton prevailed in the aftermath of the crisis and Republicans have been wary of the shutdown possibility ever since. But it’s also true that negotiations led to a GOP-sought balanced budget deal in 1997 and the party lost only eight House seats in the 1996 elections while picking up two Senate slots.
This time polls show the American public is poised to blame Republicans for any cessation of governmental services, basically asserting that they don’t much care for Obamacare but they don’t believe closing federal doors is worth the cost of killing it.
The impasse could be easier to resolve than it looks from the outside. The fact is House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) probably already has the votes to pass a continuing resolution without killing Obamacare.
Most of the GOP insistence on a brinksmanship strategy is emanating from no more than 50 Republican lawmakers with strong Tea Party ties who have made killing healthcare reform a test of party resolve on principles. Boehner in all likelihood could muster the notes necessary to pass a CR excluding the Obamacare defund by combining those Republicans uneasy about shutting down the government with House Democrats.
But Boehner is unwilling to take that giant step. He has opted to impose the so-called Hastert Rule in the handling of continuing resolution votes – only those measures that carry the support of the majority of the House Republican caucus will be considered on the lower chamber floor.