What Republicans will really do to Obamacare if they win the Senate

With pundits now saying Democrats may lose the Senate, here's what the real consequences of that could be

Published March 17, 2014 7:22PM (EDT)

John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell                                                                                                                                      (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Over at TPM, Dylan Scott has taken a close look at the various technical and internal obstacles Republicans will face if they take control of the Senate next year and try to undermine or tinker with Obamacare.

The nickel summary is that they'll run into institutional hurdles -- filibusters, vetoes -- if they try to sabotage the law, and internal opposition from conservatives if they try to legislate anything that could be framed as an improvement.

So what options will they be left with? One obvious target will be the law's financing mechanisms, many of which are unpopular, or at least unpopular to powerful constituencies, and face bipartisan opposition. Democrats would have a fairly easy time opposing efforts to repeal these measures if Republicans proposed to offset the costs with benefit cuts or other, equally unpopular financing mechanisms. But what if they just proposed adding them to the deficit? Or tacked them on to any of the handful of must-pass bills Congress passes every year? I think it's possible to imagine bills like that passing with large bipartisan majorities. Perhaps not large enough to overcome vetoes. But close.

That wouldn't endanger Obamacare per se, but would turn it into a budget buster, and that would put it on the chopping block next time Congress is overtaken by deficit hysteria and Republicans refuse to raise taxes by a penny.

The mistake we're making here, though, is confining ourselves to a fairly standard reading of legislative strategy. And there's nothing standard about how Republicans have legislated since 2011.

For instance, after suffering back-to-back defeats in debt limit fights, Republicans finally agreed to increase the nation's borrowing authority earlier this year without taking it hostage and making any ransom demands. But they didn't agree to increase the debt limit for three years, or forever. They agreed to increase it until early next year. And after riding the swinging pendulum of Senate elections back into the majority and convincing the press that their victory constitutes a mandate to take a run at Obamacare, what're the odds that they won't try to use the debt limit as their vehicle, as their first order of business in 2015?

I think President Obama has learned his lesson about all this, and Republicans would eventually agree to raise the debt limit for free. But that would be an uglier fight than people are anticipating.

By Brian Beutler

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

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