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09.20.13

Will the GOP’s Rage Against Obamacare Accomplish Anything?

House Republicans showed their distaste for health-care reform with yet another vote to defund it—but, once again, the theatrics won't lead to any real change, writes Eleanor Clift.

Once again expressing their hatred of Obamacare, the Republican-controlled House voted 230 to 189 to keep the government running through mid-December while withdrawing the funding to implement President Obama’s signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, which begins enrolling people on October 1.

Democrats and Republicans alike called the vote symbolic, a way to kickstart the process and turn the decision-making over to the Senate, where cooler heads are expected to prevail. “All it does is trigger a constitutional process that allows the Senate to act,” says Matt Bennett with Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “The Senate will rightly pay no attention to it. All it does is hit the start button.”

Because the House has to go first on budget matters, Speaker Boehner has been struggling to accommodate the raging anti-Obamacare sentiment in the GOP caucus while stopping short of a government shutdown. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the government will run out of money by late September or early October.

Under the most optimistic scenario, the Senate will pass what’s known as a “clean CR,” a continuing resolution to fund the government without condition, dropping the House Republicans’ demand to de-fund Obamacare. “The huge mystery is what does Boehner do when a clean CR comes back from the Senate?” asks Bennett. Does he take it to the floor with a minority of the majority, violating the so-called Hastert rule, and pass it with Democratic votes? And what does he do when confronted with the next bill looming, the one to raise the debt ceiling? If he does what he has to for the sake of the country and the economy, “Does it end his speakership or make him stronger? Who knows?” says Bennett.

Boehner has a civil war among Republicans on his hands. House Republicans voting to defund Obamacare were goaded in part by Senate Republican Ted Cruz, who seemed to make it a test of their manhood. When the deed was done, Cruz pointed out the obvious: that Republicans didn’t have the votes in the Senate to follow through on his tough talk to defund Obamacare. Then Cruz said maybe he would stage a Rand Paul-style filibuster to block the funding.

“A filibuster won’t get him anything but tired feet,” says Brad Blakeman, who teaches public policy and politics at Georgetown University and served in the George W. Bush White House. “What you’re doing is making a statement. I get that. But you have to live to fight another day. You’re playing chess, not Russian Roulette.”

If Republicans are serious, says Blakeman, they’ll use this opportunity to come up with a plan—an alternative to Obamacare—instead of handing the public relations advantage to the Democrats by stumbling into a government shutdown because they couldn’t figure out how to avert it.