A 'defund' encore? January could bring another showdown over health care law
The effort to strike a major blow against the new health care law in the federal government shutdown standoff came up empty from a legislative standpoint.
But those who helped orchestrate the plan, and who blame Senate Republicans for the failure, say the victory was in the fight itself. And they might stage an encore in January when government funding expires again.
U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a Georgia Republican, became a nationally known figure in his second full term by rallying conservatives to push the House GOP leadership to the right in their government spending proposals, focusing on the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.
He said it was an unanswerable "hypothetical" to ask whether he would push again to shelve the health law as a condition to extend government funding past Jan. 15, when the deal reached Wednesday expires. But he said he has no regrets from this fall's battle, which he said clarified how committed Republicans are to tearing down Obamacare.
And one of his chief allies, the conservative pressure group Heritage Action for America, said it will drive an attack on the health law at every opportunity. Spokesman Dan Holler said January's deadline will force President Barack Obama to the negotiation table.
"We can't continue to pass bills in Washington that have no chance of going anywhere," Holler said. "There needs to be some sort of leverage, and I don't think sacrificing leverage in any situation makes any sense."
The arguments are familiar. The Sept. 30 deadline on the previous short-term spending bill was also seen as a way to force negotiations, but Democrats stayed united against any effort to make a significant change to the health law.
In the end, after a 16-day shutdown, Senate leaders negotiated a bipartisan short-term deal to lift the debt ceiling and extend government funding with a minor change in the health law, requiring the administration to verify incomes of applicants for health insurance subsidies.
The outcome proved that any strategy tying the health law to a shutdown is doomed, said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican who voted for the deal. He said he would attack the law and highlight its flaws through the normal legislative process in the coming months.
"I think the majority of Congress has no appetite for another shutdown," he said.
By the end of the shutdown, House Republicans who had gone to the barricades against the law time and again were weary of the battle. Most voted against the deal, but there was little backlash against House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for allowing it to pass with mostly Democratic votes an outcome that could conceivably have happened under almost identical terms weeks ago.
"Is it really what we would have gotten on Sept. 30, or is it worse?" asked U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.), as the deal emerged Wednesday afternoon. "Did we move the needle at all through all of this, or did we actually see the needle go in the wrong direction?"
Tea party leaders and rank-and-file activists on the home front placed the blame on Republicans who didn't fully back Graves and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who helped lead the movement.
Debbie Dooley, co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, praised the united front of Georgia's House Republicans all voted against the Senate compromise and said they were "sabotaged" by "corporate Republicans in the Senate."
"Every one of the House Republicans stood strong until it reached a point when they were totally being undermined by the Republicans in the Senate like Johnny Isakson," Dooley said.
Donnie Tevault, a tea party activist in South Georgia's Camden County, said he's eager for another Obamacare fight in January, but with a better strategy.
"Obamacare needs to be defunded, but it has to be done in a smarter manner," said Tevault, a 56-year-old IT specialist. "I think it can be done in January, but Republicans have to get together before that and come up with a coherent strategy. Right now you have Republicans who would rather work with Democrats than conservatives."
The deal passed late Wednesday sets up a negotiating committee to close the yawning gap between the House Republicans' and Senate Democrats' budget priorities by Dec. 13.
Graves and Holler said December's results will dictate January's strategy, but few in Washington are optimistic that it will resolve questions of taxes and spending, particularly after years of bipartisan talks, commissions and even a "supercommittee" went nowhere.
Graves noted the struggles the Obama administration has had implementing the health insurance marketplace that's meant to facilitate the purchase of coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Given this, Graves predicted that by January the president will have delayed the law's requirement that all individuals buy health insurance, as he did for the requirement that all large employers provide it.
But a delay of the "individual mandate" would constitute a stunning reversal by the administration, which firmly rejected it in House GOP offers to avoid the shutdown.
While Graves and Holler held out hope for legislative gains in the next year, tea party members said the 2014 midterm elections are probably the next big chance to effect change after the shutdown standoff's disappointing outcome.
"We ended up taking the middle ground that accomplished nothing, and the Republican image took a beating," said Karl Heidbrink, a 74-year-old retiree who helped organize the Middle Georgia Tea Party. "Now we have to wait to see what happens the next 90 days. I just think we'll end up with the same thing all over again."
It left his wife, Julia, with a different reaction. The 68-year-old spent the morning on Facebook connecting with other tea party faithful who had a common goal in mind.
"In order to make changes, we need more tea party candidates," Julia Heidbrink said. "It's the only way we're going to stop this freight train that's totally out of control. We need to get more Ted Cruzes in there. He's exactly what we need. Otherwise we might as well sit down and let Obama have his way and just not worry about it."