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Obamacare Battles in the House Put Burden on Boehner as Budget Deadlines Loom

September 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Congress returns to Capitol Hill this week, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is in a bind to pass major spending bills before the Oct. 1 fiscal year deadline. Gwen Ifill speaks with Todd Zwillich of Public Radio International about how the battle over Obamacare threatens to shut down the government.
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GWEN IFILL: We turn now to Capitol Hill, where intraparty fights over health care could force another round of showdowns and setbacks on the budget.

Without an agreement, the federal government could shut down in less than three weeks.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: There’s all this speculation about — about these deadlines that are coming up. I’m well aware of the deadlines. So are my colleagues.

GWEN IFILL: The first of the deadlines hanging over House Speaker John Boehner and the rest of Congress arrives October 1, at the start of the new fiscal year. That’s when lawmakers have to approve major spending bills, or risk shutting the federal government down.

But a core group of House Republicans, spurred on by Tea Party activists, are insisting that funding for the health care law, now universally nicknamed Obamacare, be cut first.

REP. PAUL BROUN, R-Ga.: We have got to send a message from all across America to members of Congress in the House and in the Senate and particularly to the leadership, we’re not going to put up with funding Obamacare. We have got to get rid of it, and this is our last, best chance.  

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: In one showdown this week, Tea Party Republicans refused to support a temporary spending proposal that would have allowed the Senate to restore Obamacare. Still, Boehner said today he’s confident an agreement can be reached.

JOHN BOEHNER: So, we’re working with our colleagues to work our way through these issues. I think there’s a way to get there. I’m going to be continuing to work with my fellow leaders and our members to address those concerns.

GWEN IFILL: But time is short, so House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced a congressional recess scheduled for later this month may not happen.

REP. ERIC CANTOR, R-Va.: Members are advised that, pending ongoing discussions on the continuing resolution, the House may need to be in session during the week of September 23 and possibly into the weekend.

GWEN IFILL: Democrats say Republicans need to back off. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer:

REP. STENY HOYER, D-Md.: There was a poll taken November 2012. The president of the United States won that poll. But your myopic focus on that one issue threatens to shut down government and put at risk the creditworthiness of the United States of America.

GWEN IFILL: That same message was delivered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who met behind closed doors today with House leaders.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: If the Republican leaders keep giving into the Tea Party and their impossible demands, they must be rooting for a shutdown.

GWEN IFILL: And turning from discussion of Syria, President Obama echoed the same message at a White House Cabinet meeting.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The American people are still interested in making sure that our kids are getting the kind of education they deserve, that we’re putting people back to work, that we are dealing properly with a federal budget, that bills are getting paid on time, and that the full faith and credit of the United States is preserved.

GWEN IFILL: That last item refers to the other key deadline: The government could default on its obligations by mid-October, unless Congress raises the national debt limit in the next few weeks.

Joining me to help explain what’s behind all the political maneuvering is Todd Zwillich. He covers Congress for “The Takeaway” from Public Radio International and WNYC.

First, explain to people who are confused about this, what does Obamacare, the health care law, have to do with the budget?

TODD ZWILLICH, WNYC Radio: Nothing, until you factor in the politics of the right. Tea Party members, not exclusively Tea Party members, are vehement about getting Obamacare defunded and repealed.

We have talked time after time. What are they up to now, 33, 34, 35 votes to eviscerate Obamacare. Why now? There’s another deadline that you didn’t discuss in the piece there. It’s also October 1, the day Obamacare exchanges launch. And you heard Congressman Broun say, this is our last, best chance. He means it.

They have tried again and again. They had two elections. They have had a Supreme Court decision, but Republicans know — and they will discuss this on Capitol Hill — once the exchanges are up, once the subsidies are flowing, they know that Obamacare will become an entitlement that people are used to. And they think this is their last chance.

GWEN IFILL: There is — this is also being spurred on in part by members of the Senate, people Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. They’re also juicing this along, aren’t they?

TODD ZWILLICH: They are.

And this has become a way for the right, senators like Cruz, groups like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks, and Senator Rubio to either show their conservative bona fides — Marco Rubio is well-touted as a possible presidential candidate — but also to use the vehemence of the right to put pressure on their own party.

Much of this is not, Gwen, about putting pressure on the Democrats. This is about Republicans on the right putting pressure on Republicans of the establishment, putting pressure on the John Boehners and Mitch McConnells.

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: So, what is John — what is John Boehner’s plan? He obviously thinks it’s a bad idea to put everything in the health care, the Obamacare basket. What is his plan to get around that?

TODD ZWILLICH: It is really unclear.

And he made a quip earlier today or yesterday, saying, if you have any ideas, send them my way. Send me some amendments. I would love to see them.

He said today in that press conference where you showed some video there, there are a million ideas floating around out there. We will find one. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also intimating that there weren’t really any ideas and Democrats are sitting back and waiting.

GWEN IFILL: Democrats aren’t really heartbroken about this?

(CROSSTALK)

TODD ZWILLICH: Not at all, because they are confident that nobody really wants a shutdown. They know Speaker Boehner doesn’t, because this would be terrible politics for Republicans, or so they believe.

Democrats feel they’re kind of in the power seat here, sitting back and waiting for John Boehner and the Republicans to come up with something that really doesn’t try to defund Obamacare. Then they can fight over actual spending levels.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about that. Let’s set aside Obamacare for a moment and talk about what is at the root of this. What is the — where does the spending debate stand?

TODD ZWILLICH: And this is interesting, because this is actually where John Boehner’s probably about to get a little bit of a win here.

Underneath all the dust about Obamacare, remember sequestration? Of course. Those cuts that were automatic cuts hanging over everything. This continuing resolution, they’re usually designed to continue spending levels at the current levels. We don’t have an agreement yet. Let’s just kick the can two or three months.

That’s what this is going to do, but here’s the debate between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats say, sequestration, we want to try to fix that. We want to plug that. We don’t want to assume that sequestration stays in effect.

GWEN IFILL: How?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, their budget assumes that it’s going to be fixed with a bigger deal, maybe surrounding the debt limit, come up with some tax increases or spending cuts in other areas to get rid of what the president calls the meat axe approach, cutting everywhere.

Here’s the Republican’s play on this. Their continuing resolution, Gwen, has the sequestration cuts baked in, not pretending like it hangs over everything, but these are the new levels, the new baseline, $988 billion, to throw one number at you.

Democrats have shown really not much of an appetite to fight over the number. They’re pointing to the Obamacare fight, because it makes Republicans look divided and weak, and they are divided on this. But, on the number, John Boehner seems to be pushing a 988 number, and Democrats don’t really seem to show much motivation to fight it.

GWEN IFILL: And, yet, this is the not the first time John Boehner has run into resistance from like a core member resistance, unyielding member of his own caucus, also on the farm bill, on other issues.

TODD ZWILLICH: Oh, no.

GWEN IFILL: What…

TODD ZWILLICH: Farm bill, transportation bill, the debt limit fight last year, where John Boehner put a legislative gambit on the floor to satisfy conservatives and watched it fail. He had to yank that off the floor, so that it didn’t fail out from under him. But he is going to get a little bit of a win. Conservatives at the end of this are probably going to be very upset with John Boehner, because Obamacare won’t be repealed. We know the president will never sign that. Harry Reid won’t put it on the floor. We can assume that pretty safely.

But if he gets this number, this 988 that he wants, they might like the lower spending numbers, even though conservatives want cuts even deeper. However, an extra $20 billion John Boehner is getting for defense problems that Republicans like — the whole point of sequestration was everybody feels the pain. Domestic programs, Democrats feel the pain. Defense, Republicans feel the pain.

That’s still in effect, except an extra $20 billion worked into this deal that goes towards defense, sort of ease up the pressure on defense. That’s not the final deal yet, but that looks like where this is headed. And if it does, Boehner has something to show to Republicans, even though he doesn’t get the Obamacare repeal.

GWEN IFILL: Rubber hitting road.

TODD ZWILLICH: In a big way. Lot of deadlines coming up, and we’re a long way from the end of it.

GWEN IFILL: Todd Zwillich, WNYC, thanks a lot again.

TODD ZWILLICH: Pleasure.