A Health Care Plan B for Republicans

Even though Democrats control the Senate, the House GOP has a few cards it can play.

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As soon as Tuesday, the U.S. Senate will take up the continuing resolution the House passed on Friday that includes a provision to "defund" Obamacare.

Right now conservative groups are applying considerable pressure on individual senators to stand with Texas Republican Ted Cruz and Utah Republican Mike Lee to pass it as it was received. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, unfortunately, has other ideas.

Reid has been a cheerleader for Obamacare from the very beginning. He wanted to get it through the Senate from its earliest days, but was blocked both by the GOP's resistance and the general unpopularity of the legislation. Being "for" the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was always a tough vote and nothing has happened since it was enacted to make it any less so.

It is, however, President Barack Obama's signature achievement. It's the most consequential thing he has accomplished during his time in the White House. Some would even say it is the only consequential thing, which makes the prospect of killing it such a reach. He would sooner sell his own birthright than see Congress undo what it has already done.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

As the leader of the Senate Democrats, Reid is in the uncomfortable position of carrying the president's water. The House has voted nearly 50 times to repeal all or parts of Obamacare – and has had more success than most pundits would acknowledge.

It has not been all for naught. What Congress has passed and the president has signed do not represent hollow victories – even if the Republicans have not been able to pull the whole thing up by its roots and dispense with it.

In the event that Reid structures the upcoming votes to leave only the motion to proceed to the debate on the continuing resolution at the 60 vote threshold, the opponents of Obamacare need to rethink their strategy. It is unlikely that any one senator, or even a small group of senators,  will be able to take the floor and hold it until the Nevada Democrat backs down, especially with the end of the fiscal year rapidly approaching. Any amendments to the CR will likely pass with a simple majority, meaning Reid can succeed in his threat to strip the defunding provision out of the bill

He may do other things as well, which is something worthy of discussion only after the Senate acts. Right now the issue is the language defunding Obamacare and, if it is stripped out and an otherwise clean CR is sent back to the House that preserves the cuts under the so-called sequester, the ball will be back in Speaker John Boehner's court.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

Boehner is known to prefer a CR that will fund the government through December so that some semblance of regular order can be preserved and so that the House can work its will on the remaining appropriations bills. It is unlikely he will push for a CR any shorter than that, nor is it likely that he will insist that the House once again vote to defund Obamacare knowing that the Senate will simply turn around and strip the language out once again and, Reid being the crafty devil that he is, up the ante by busting the spending caps or including some other nonsense.

At that point, the Republicans should invoke "Plan B," which they have yet to define. From a political standpoint, knowing that defunding is not, for the moment, going to happen, they need to make the new CR as unpalatable as possible for the Senate Democrats and the president while still holding open the possibility that it could be passed and signed.

One potential shift would be to leave out the defunding language and replace it with a one year delay in the implementation of the individual mandate. This would set it on equal footing with the employer mandate, which the president has already delayed for a year by administrative fiat. It would also create a powerful political argument that it is the president who is standing up for big business and big labor and the special interests by allowing them a one-year exemption from the some of the pain Obamacare is sure to bring while continuing to force it down the throats of people like you and me.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The second potential shift, and one that has an almost unheard of 92 percent level of support according to a poll conducted by Independent Women's Voice, is to attach the Vitter/DeSantis language to the CR that takes back the taxpayer-funded health insurance subsidies for congressional staff and members, the authority for which President Obama managed to wring out of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management at the 11th hour.

Those who defend the subsidy compare it to employer supports for health insurance that can be found in the private sector. This sounds right, but it's is really comparing apples and cumquats, since private employers have to count the cost of such subsidies. Congress does not. They control the printing press and if they just have to run it a little longer to keep their staff from leaving, so be it. This is why the Vitter/DeSantis language is so unpopular on Capitol Hill, but is a winner among the American people: because they are sick and tired of the politicians in both parties treating themselves and their staffs like they are a special class of people more deserving of special treatment than ordinary citizens.

Truth be told, it's unlikely the Vitter/DeSantis language would make it through the Senate either. Reid would probably structure things so that 60 votes were needed to pass it. But there's more than one way to skin a cat. Imagine the campaign commercials one year from now: "While your employer terminated your health insurance and forced you into a dysfunctional Obamacare exchange, your United States Senator was voting a generous subsidy that you paid for with your tax dollars so that he (or she) and his staff didn't have to do the same thing you were. Is that fair – or is your United States Senator just a little out of touch with what is going on in the real world back home. Maybe they need to come back for a visit – or even stay a little while longer."

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: New Polls Deflate the Push to Defund Obamacare or Have a Shutdown
  • Read Pat Garofalo: Obama Is Right to Call the GOP's Debt Ceiling Hostage Bluff
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