Tea Party gets shut down: GOP senator nixes "nuclear" Obamacare repeal option -- for now

Mike Lee backed off his arcane plan to pass an Obamacare repeal, but now the pressure's back on McConnell

Published July 28, 2015 4:50PM (EDT)

Mike Lee          (AP/Justin Hayworth)
Mike Lee (AP/Justin Hayworth)

And so it was that Sen. Mike Lee's "actually, we only need 51 votes to repeal Obamacare" maneuver came to an unsatisfactory end Monday night: not with a defeat on the Senate floor, but with a leaked email.

Lee and his fellow conservative rabble-rouser, Sen. Ted Cruz, have been trying to annoy Mitch McConnell since Friday morning by pushing, through whatever procedural means available to them, for votes on their respective non-germane amendments to the highway/Export-Import Bank reauthorization bill. Their Republican colleagues did not care for these gestures and instantly shot down their efforts for votes on Iran and Planned Parenthood amendments Sunday afternoon.

Lee, however, then began pushing for what we'll call a "kinda-sorta nuclear option" to attach a full Obamacare repeal amendment to the bill through a 51-vote simple majority. Though Democrats still would have been able to filibuster the underlying bill, Lee's move would have set a precedent for beginning to unravel the legislative filibuster, something that Republican senators will be under a lot of pressure to consider in 2017 if the 60-vote requirement -- a rule that the majority can dispose of whenever it feels like -- is the only thing standing between them and a full repeal of Obamacare.

But last night, Lee was called to the principal's office to be shamed in front of his colleagues:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell got his hands on something he believed to be damning: An email from Sen. Mike Lee’s aide to conservative activists plotting to use an Obamacare vote as a political weapon.

So McConnell quickly summoned the GOP to a closed-door session in the Senate’s Mansfield Room Monday night. And he made sure his caucus read the email, placing a copy on every Republican senator’s chair before they arrived. A lawmaker in the room described the mood as “combative.” [...]

Lee was quick to apologize, saying he wasn’t aware of what his aide was doing. And one conservative firebrand stayed notably quiet: Ted Cruz of Texas.

Lee, duly embarrassed by his staffer doing something that his staffer obviously would do, agreed to call off the kinda-sorta nuclear option. This is a textbook example of the different incentives bounding someone who hopes to have a productive career as a legislator, like Mike Lee, versus someone who just wants to be president, like Ted Cruz. Once Lee got an earful from his colleagues and was shamed by the majority leader, he backed off. For Cruz, though, the whole point of even bothering to show up in the Senate anymore is to pull off stunts that earn him a lashing from "Washington politicians" which he can parlay into a campaign email soliciting donations.

Lee claims, however, that he was able to extract a pledge from the Republican leadership in exchange for backing down: renewed support for using budget reconciliation to repeal Obamacare.

This would mark approximately the nine-thousandth time that conservative lawmakers have allegedly earned a pledge from Republican leaders to pursue repealing Obamacare through budget reconciliation, the one non-nuclear legislative vehicle through which a legislative package can pass the Senate with 51 votes.

Oh boy, have we ever written about this. House and Senate GOP leaders were only able to corral the necessary votes needed to pass their joint budget resolution this spring by promising to use reconciliation to repeal Obamacare. Obviously getting a full "Obamacare" repeal to the president's desk during this Congress would achieve nothing since the current president, "Obama," would veto the crap out of it. But the idea is to show Republican voters ahead of 2016 that a simple change in White House party affiliation is all that's needed to restore the country to its pre-Obamacare utopia of unregulated individual health insurance markets.

The experiment to repeal Obamacare using reconciliation has stalled in the past couple of months, so we're glad to see that Lee, McConnell, and everyone is onboard to resume it. It's an effort that will require all of Mitch McConnell's formidable parliamentary dexterity to pull off. Legislation passed under reconciliation must directly pertain to the deficit, so unwinding various ACA regulations may require tortured logic to appease the Senate parliamentarian. And the way in which that legislation must pertain to the deficit is that it must not increase the deficit. So far, each Congressional Budget Office score, either static or dynamic, has shown that repealing Obamacare would dramatically increase the deficit.

McConnell will have some options. He could logroll the Obamacare repeal with some other budget-cutting legislation that makes the overall reconciliation package a deficit-reducer. Or he could repeal just enough of Obamacare through reconciliation that the law no longer works and might as well be eliminated entirely.

If McConnell and his team cannot figure out a way to make the reconciliation experiment work, then conservatives will reapply the pressure on them to simply nuke the legislative filibuster altogether. Nearly every dopey article you read about Mitch McConnell mentions his Reverence for Senate Traditions, as though there's no more laudable trait a human can possess. But it may just be that McConnell reveres politics more than the traditions of the Capitol's stuffier wing, and the political pressure to eliminate the filibuster will be potent.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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