GOP's incompetence is a godsend for America

House Republicans have several ways they can mess with Obamacare -- they're simply incapable of getting them done

Published September 26, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

Eric Cantor, John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell                                                                                          (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Eric Cantor, John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Now that Ted Cruz has proved his mettle to the right, and pissed off half of his party in the process, everyone's looking around at each other wondering what happens next.

It's like that moment after Bluto's rousing speech in "Animal House," when he storms out of the room, but instead of inspiring anyone, they all just sit there in a state of intoxicated bewilderment.

Except instead of anyone returning to the floor to rally the troops, what happens now in all likelihood is the Senate will pass a bill to extend funding for the government until mid-November, stripped of a rider to defund the healthcare law and send it back to the House.

That's left Republicans in both the House and Senate, but particularly the House, scouring the basement for a new Obamacare rider -- any rider -- that they might be able to sneak in at the last minute. One that's less contentious than a defunding measure and politically more difficult for Democrats to defeat.

Back in August, I predicted that Republicans would pick a sleeper fight with Democrats over stripping healthcare compensation from both members and their aides. That measure was introduced by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and thanks to Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who wants to extend the idea to the president, vice president and political appointees, it's getting a closer look.

The idea is punitive and mean for all the reasons I noted in the article -- an attack on a bunch of middle-income staffers disguised as an attempt to stick it to Democrats and rein in President Obama. Members of both parties hate it. But it's also something members of both parties would have a hard time voting against.

There are a couple of other options, none of which would do the healthcare law any real harm, but all of which would be extremely annoying, and test Democrats' determination to end these sorts of last-minute muggings. The purpose would be as much to extract an ounce of flesh from Democrats, as to claim a victory in the government shutdown fight, and to reestablish a precedent that Republicans get to take a swat at the healthcare law every time the country faces a crucial budget deadline.

The problem for Republicans is that they're procedurally limited in the Senate, and incompetent in the House.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he supports the Vitter amendment. But he would need 60 votes to actually add it to the government funding bill. And that's if Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn't shut down the amendment process -- a maneuver called "filling the tree" -- before McConnell has a chance to offer it.

House Speaker John Boehner faces fewer obstacles in theory, but in practice his members are a disaster. House aides have been floating all kinds of trial balloons -- from non-starters like a year-long delay of the individual mandate, to the Vitter amendment, to a one-week stopgap bill to keep the hope of some larger concession alive, to simply passing whatever the Senate sends back. If there's a larger strategy behind splatter painting options across the pages of the national political media hoping it will create something salable, I don't know what it is. It's not even clear that Boehner has the votes to pass a spending bill if he tacks something onto it that estranges Democrats.

But even if he does, he'll be fighting both the calendar and the fact that Democrats have the power -- as they're demonstrating right now -- to strip riders like these on a straightforward, simple-majority basis. If he amends the spending bill and it fails in the House, he'd humiliate himself and his leadership team (again!) and possibly trigger a brief government shutdown. If he sends an amended bill back to the Senate he could walk away with a consolation trophy like the Vitter amendment. But he'll also run a similar risk -- a brief government shutdown to his name and nothing to show for it.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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