Hillary will laugh all the way to the White House: How the GOP's boneheaded Obamacare fixation boosts her bid

Conservatives insist on getting an Obamacare repeal to Obama's desk. They should be careful what they wish for

Published April 28, 2015 5:08PM (EDT)

  (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
(AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

A final agreement between House and Senate negotiators on a joint budget resolution is imminent. The New York Times reported Monday night that a deal had been struck, with votes coming as early as Wednesday. But now Sen. Bob Corker, a conferee in the negotiations, isn't ready to sign off? There's all sorts of speculation as to why. Most interesting among them: he first may want to secure commitments from certain grandstanders in his conference to not sabotage his Iran bill, due for amendment on the Senate floor today.

Budget negotiations are difficult because, with approximately zero Democratic votes in play, House and Senate Republican conferees need to meld their blueprints into something acceptable to nearly all congressional Republicans. House Republican "firebrands" hope to completely destroy poor people, whereas Senate Republican dandies merely want their assistants to punch poor people a couple of times. What to do?

Key to winning over conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus is the process of reconciliation. It doesn't matter, beyond "statement of values" reasons, whether Paul Ryan's plan to voucherize Medicare is included in the joint budget resolution or not. Those non-binding ideological statements are just that: non-binding ideological statements  What matters is in setting discretionary spending caps for appropriators to work with and now, since Republicans finally have unified control of Congress, approving reconciliation instructions that will offer the GOP one shot to move a legislative package through the Senate without threat of a Democratic filibuster.

Conservatives have been demanding that reconciliation be used on a bill to repeal Obamacare since last November's election. Republican leaders at first were hesitant to waste reconciliation on legislation that President Obama would veto in a heartbeat, but when they needed conservative votes to pass their initial resolutions, they appeared to give conservatives what they wanted.

Now Freedom Caucus members are worried that Republican leaders are waffling and may -- gasp! -- want to use reconciliation for practical ends:

Many House conservatives backed the budget last month and spared GOP leaders another showdown with their right flank for one big reason: They were under the impression the spending blueprint would help them — finally — get an Obamacare repeal to the president’s desk.

Now they’re concerned that Speaker John Boehner and company have other plans.

Conservatives are adamant that reconciliation — the rarely used fast-track procedure that allows the Senate to pass legislation with a simple majority rather than 60 votes — be used to pass a repeal of the health care law. They believed GOP leaders were on board.

But as House and Senate lawmakers have met to hash out a compromise budget over the past few weeks, conservatives noted that House Republican leaders have been talking about leaving their options open. An Obamacare repeal is a possibility, but so is a health care “fix” should the Supreme Court knock down some Obamacare tax credits in a case to be decided within a few months.

Freedom Caucus conservatives' argument for using reconciliation on a full repeal is a political one: it will show voters in stark terms that all they need is a change in partisan affiliation at the White House, and Obamacare will be no more. This will galvanize Republican voters to show up on Election Day 2016. Not history's worst political strategy, sure, though one doubts whether core Republican voters would ever be ambivalent about showing up to vote against Hillary Clinton.

Have Jim Jordan and his fellow Freedom Caucus members considered the flip side of this, however? Traditionally Republican voters won't need any more reason than they already have to show up to the polls in 2016. After an eight-year drought, they're salivating at the prospect of restoring a Republican to the presidency. The big question looming over the 2016 presidential election is whether Democrats, specifically the coalition that voted in droves to elect Barack Obama twice, will be ambivalent about turning out for Hillary Clinton.

It's hard to think of a better way for Hillary Clinton to turn out reluctant Democrats next November than to say: If you don't vote, Obamacare will be repealed. She will argue that Republicans made a show of getting an Obamacare repeal to President Obama's desk, and she'll be right, because Republicans will have made a show of getting an Obamacare repeal to President Obama's desk.

If Republicans continue with their vague, hand-waving jabber about how they'll repeal Obamacare if they win the next election, Democrats might think, ah, well, that would never happen. If Republicans go out of their way, though, to get a repeal bill to the president's desk this year, Democrats -- even progressives who remain unenthused about a Clinton restoration -- may well wake up on November 8, 2016 and think, oh crap, I guess I'd better vote for Hillary Clinton today.

This is another instance where House conservatives would be better off taking their leaders' tactical advice, more or less guaranteeing that they won't.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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