The Issue: The budget battle -- to fund or not to fund Obamacare

By MARCELLA KREITER, United Press International  |  Sept. 22, 2013 at 4:30 AM
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Let's see if we've got this straight: The U.S. government runs out of money in little more than a week and will breach the debt ceiling within a few more, Congress is nowhere near approving a fiscal 2014 budget and defunding/repealing healthcare reform remains House Republicans' top priority.

What's wrong with this picture?

The House leadership last week decided to back Tea Party efforts to tie a continuing resolution and/or the debt ceiling debate to funding for the Affordable Care Act -- aka Obamacare -- which fully takes effect Jan. 1. The state health insurance marketplaces are supposed to be up and running Oct. 1, with half the state exchanges to be run solely by the federal government.

The House has voted more than 40 times to either defund or repeal the ACA only to see the legislation arrive DOA in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Insurance companies, hospitals, doctors and employers have been working on plans and switching systems to implement the law by its effective date, with companies like Walgreens already announcing plans to move their employees to the exchanges.

Among the issues Republicans have yet to address is the impact suddenly yanking all funding would have on the delivery of healthcare.

But maybe that's the strategy: GOP strategist Karl Rove has said repealing Obamacare would be a bad idea. He'd rather see the law crippled and the administration get the blame, figuring a poorly implemented system would be an electoral gift in the mid-term elections.

GOP House Speaker John Boehner made defunding Obamacare part of the continuing resolution to keep the government operating through Dec. 15 sent to the Senate Friday on a 230-189 vote -- despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's promise such a measure would be rejected out-of-hand.

"Now it's up to the Senate to listen to the families & small businesses who don't want #Obamacare," Boehner tweeted after the vote.

At an appearance at a Ford plant in Missouri, President Obama said the vote proves Republicans are focused on politics, not the good of the nation.

"They're just trying to mess with me," Obama said.

Boehner told a Thursday news conference it is not the House's intent to trigger a government shutdown. Rather, he said, it's up to Senate Republicans to do everything they can to neuter the ACA -- and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has indicated he's up to the task, planning a possible filibuster to keep a clean bill from passing the upper chamber.

"Listen, Obamacare's driving up the cost of healthcare. It's destroying millions of American jobs," Boehner said. "It is a train wreck. It has to go. We've done everything humanly possible over the last 2 1/2 years."

Obama has no intention of signing a measure that yanks funding from healthcare reform.

"The administration strongly opposes House passage of [the resolution], making continuing appropriations [dependent on defunding healthcare reform] ... because it advances a narrow ideological agenda that threatens our economy and the interests of the middle class," a White House statement of policy said.

"The resolution would defund the Affordable Care Act, denying millions of hard-working middle-class families the security of affordable health coverage. If the president were presented with [the resolution], he would veto the bill."

Obama has said he wants a clean bill that will allow the government to operate and give Congress time to work out a budget -- a neat trick since it hasn't passed one in three years. He also asserted continuing resolutions and debt-ceiling increases never have been tied to hot-potato issues -- something former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said is blatantly false.

At the Business Roundtable last week, Obama said healthcare inflation has slowed and the federal deficit is coming down though the national debt is still growing.

"What we now have is a ideological fight that's been mounted in the House of Representatives that says, we're not going to pass a budget and we will threaten a government shutdown unless we repeal the Affordable Care Act," said Obama, who is taking the budget battle on the road.

"We have not seen this in the past that a budget is contingent on us eliminating a program that was voted on, passed by both chambers of Congress, ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court, is two weeks from being fully implemented, and that helps 30 million people finally get healthcare coverage. We've never seen that become the issue around a budget battle. And so that's right now the primary roadblock to resolving the budget.

"What's worse, that same faction has said, if we can't succeed in shutting the government down and leveraging that to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, we may be prepared to let the government default on our debt."

Gingrich, as part of his role on CNN "Crossfire," said it's "absurd" to say the Obamacare debate has nothing to do with the budget or the debt.

"Obamacare is a major part of the budget, and it is now projected to cost twice what the president promised," Gingrich said.

"The president's historical claim is completely wrong, as well. Let's set the record straight.

"Debt ceilings have been used since President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s to enable conservatives to put limits on government spending."

The question now is whether the defunding question is really a line in the sand for Obama or whether he will find a way to compromise with Republicans, whose latest ploy is to postpone the ACA for a year while they come up with an alternative.

Boehner also has not said if he'd be willing to suspend the Hastert rule -- refusing to call a bill unless it can be passed with a Republican majority -- on a continuing resolution sans ACA defunding.

And really, what does a government shutdown mean? Essential services are unaffected but a large number of federal employees are furloughed. Military personnel remain on duty but their pay schedule is affected. Ditto border agents, air traffic controllers and medical personnel at federal hospitals. Other facilities like passport offices and national parks would be closed.

The Washington Post reported the two government shutdowns in the 1990s affected unemployment and veterans' benefits, IRS tax-refund processing, new FHA home loan guarantees, farm loans and payments, and small business loan guarantees. Social Security checks would go out as usual but new applications would not be accepted.

Members of Congress, however, get paid as usual.

And a government shutdown doesn't save any money The Office of Management and Budget has estimated the two shutdowns in the 1990s cost taxpayers the equivalent of $2 billion in today's dollars.

So Tea Partiers probably should ask themselves: Is it worth taking your bat and ball and going home? After all, the 1990s budget battles gave a boost to President Bill Clinton who already was mired in Congressional investigations into his sexual escapades.

Besides, a memo by the Congressional Research Service to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., an ardent foe of the ACA, indicates a temporary government shutdown would not prevent implementation of healthcare reform since mandatory funds as well as multiple-year and no-year discretionary funds would still be available. Additionally, during a government shutdown, federal agencies still can perform certain duties.

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