Washington • The Republican plan to strangle Obamacare, an effort that led to the first government shutdown in nearly 17 years, has shrunk to a much smaller goal: at least walk away with something.
The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, as it’s more popularly known, will not just survive. It may escape unscathed. Negotiations in Washington are now barely touching the health care law, which was at the center of the budget impasse two weeks ago.
“People recognize that the original goal of defunding Obamacare is unattainable at this point,” freshman Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said Tuesday after a two-hour closed-door session in which House Republicans failed to agree on a plan to reopen the government and extend its ability to borrow money.
There appears to be a general agreement to fund the government through mid-January and extend the debt limit into early February, but what concessions it will take to swing the votes changed several times Tuesday.
At one point, Republicans wanted a two-year delay of a tax on medical devices, but then backed away.
They also called for a guarantee that Americans getting health insurance subsidies were in the correct income brackets, but they removed that provision, too.
Then they called for a vote to cut federal subsidies for members of Congress and their staffers, who under Obamacare are required to buy insurance through exchanges, a change that would cost them individually about $5,000 a year.
So is that a win?
“It depends on what you mean by winnable, right?” Stewart said. “Our definition of winnable today is quite a bit different than it was two weeks ago.”
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah had spearheaded the push to drop any Obamacare funding as a condition of passing a budget to keep the government running. When the GOP-run House and Democrat-led Senate rejected each other’s plan, much of the federal government closed Oct. 1 for the first time since 1996.
Cruz and Lee were absent Tuesday from the Senate’s Republican caucus meeting, though they were a topic of discussion.
The duo has promised to oppose any plan that doesn’t defund or delay Obamacare, but it’s unclear whether the tea-party-backed senators would try to delay action on any deal on the budget and debt limit.
Patience, it appeared, was growing thin with the two’s fellow Republicans.
“I have said from the beginning, it was a fool’s errand,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been a vocal critic of the Cruz-Lee strategy. “It is still a fool’s errand. It has and will be a fool’s errand. You’re not going to defund Obamacare, so I’m sure the American people will know who’s responsible and who isn’t. We’ll let them judge.”
So far, it appears Republicans will take the brunt of that judgment.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 74 percent of voters disapproved of the congressional Republicans’ handling of the budget crisis. About 53 percent disapproved of Obama’s efforts and 61 percent balked at the way Democrats in Congress were negotiating.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, says no federal leaders will look good when this impasse ends.
“Everybody in Washington gets a mark of disgust from the general public, but I can look everybody in the eye and say I have voted yes on every bill that has been put before me to fund the government,” Chaffetz said, referring to GOP measures that would have delayed or cut funding for the health care law and agency-by-agency, piecemeal budgets that Republicans have put forward. “At the end of the day, I have to vote for what I believe is right. I don’t get to unilaterally decide what we get to vote on.”
That is part of the frustration. At this stage, negotiations take place in private among a small group of Republican and Democratic leaders. None of Utah’s members of Congress is part of those discussions.
Chaffetz said Republicans have stood on “some principles that we find imperative,” but he supports a small extension of the debt limit and a reopening of the government that would spur more substantive conversations down the road.
“We have to go to these extremes just to get the Democrats to agree to have discussions — that is how bad it is,” he said, rejecting President Barack Obama’s insistence that he won’t negotiate over these basics of governing.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, put some hope into a bipartisan accord to negotiate over federal spending and the debt, with the ambition of reaching an agreement in December.
He warned that rejecting even a small deal could be financially catastrophic.
“Sometimes you have to deal with what can be done right now to change the dynamic of what we have,” he said, resigned to a compromise with little impact on the health law. “If you actually default, anyone who has money in a retirement fund is screwed. At some time, you have to move this entire issue forward so you actually get people to come and talk again.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who bucked the Cruz-Lee tactic, nonetheless blamed the devolving negotiations on Senate Democrats trying to use the shutdown to pummel his party. He said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., “wants to embarrass Republicans if he can. I think they think they can win abject control of the Senate by embarrassing Republicans.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday he was “encouraged” by the talks between Reid and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., but that “we’re far from a deal at this point.”
Part of what encourages the Oval Office, and frustrates conservatives like Lee, is that the GOP has dropped its effort to dismantle the health law.