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Here's what the House is thinking with its Obamacare gambit

A veteran of the '95 government shutdown seeks to explain the calculations by the GOP as it draws a line over de-funding the Affordable Care Act

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

8:00 AM EDT, September 22, 2013

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The GOP's attempt to de-fund the "Affordable Care Act" (aka "Obamacare") is somewhat complicated, but I will attempt to bring it together for you.

We begin with the fact of universal Republican opposition to the law. Not one Republican supported Obamacare's original passage. And generally negative reviews by a nervous public since that time have only encouraged continuing attempts to slow down its implementation.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Obama administration has been quite liberal with waivers, exceptions and delayed effective dates but strongly opposed to any (friendly or unfriendly) attempts to amend the bill. And this despite loud and growing opposition from some of the president's most loyal allies, including the Teamsters and Treasury Employees Union.

Another easy to understand fact: Democratic control of the Senate means opponents have no chance to amend or "starve" the bill (by denying funding) through the regular legislative process.

All of which brings us to the House GOP leadership's plan to attach an Obamacare de-funding provision to a bill (a "CR," or continuing resolution) that keeps the government funded and open for business at the end of the fiscal year.

This strategy would normally have the blessing of conservative types who are "all in" when it comes to shelving the widely unpopular health care reform.

But not in this case. Grassroots conservatives fear this is simply another "show" vote meant to placate them rather than truly derail the law. They understand that the Democratic Senate will strip a "loaded" bill of the offensive de-funding language before being returned to the House — a House that would likely accept the "clean" bill since members had (again) gone on record as opposing the law for public consumption back home. This "cover your backside" approach is the focus of intense criticism by tea party leaders and leading Republican commentators (Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin) content to risk a government shutdown over the issue. They believe the president has been wounded by low approval ratings, his Syria misadventures, and negative public reaction to Obamacare's approaching effective date. In their view, leveraging this next CR is the last, best chance to kill the bill.

FYI: These members are not afraid to back up their tough talk, either. Last week, they rejected a short-term (90-day) spending package that merely provided the Senate with the option of de-funding the president's prized legislative accomplishment.

The opposing view is grounded in the harsh reality of government shut-down politics. It recognizes the GOP will most certainly be blamed for yet another chapter of frustrating government dysfunction by an Obama-compliant press. I was provided a front row seat to these negative media repercussions during the 1995 government shutdown. Although it was no big deal for me given my safe seat, it was a very big deal for those Republicans from competitive districts with large numbers of government employees.

Further, advocates of the "no-shutdown" approach point to likely GOP gains in the 2014 election (incumbent presidents typically lose seats in their 6th year mid-terms) that would be put at risk by a more stringent approach. The pragmatic bottom line: Why lead with our chin on a shutdown strategy when there is no reason to believe Democrats will agree to de-fund Obamacare?

Some hardliners point to the GOP's short term "win" over the president during last spring's budget showdown as "proof" the president will cave in the end. But that skirmish was one of the very few times the GOP negotiators enjoyed a degree of leverage (because of sequestration) over an administration fearful of that ultimate budget hammer.

Such is not the case here, however. The president would welcome the harsh anti-GOP media spin that would surely follow even a short-term government shut-down. And all the more so to take attention off of Syria. He would also seek to exploit the above-cited marginal seat Republicans who would likely have little enthusiasm for a sustained shut-down. What an opportunity for a president gifted at blaming Republicans for all that ails a broken Capitol Hill.

The foregoing presents a monumental test for House Speaker John Boehner. Many rank and file tea party-inspired members are unsatisfied with yet another "symbolic" vote to kill a law that has begun to inflict great damage and confusion within the health care marketplace. They are encouraged in their opposition by feedback from influential activists who enjoy outsized influence in so many safe (GOP stronghold) districts. Accordingly, they demand a strategy that marries de-funding of Obamacare with a must-pass piece of legislation such as the continuing resolution. (The upcoming vote on raising the debt ceiling presents another such "marital" option.)

This is a difficult call for conservatives. The stakes are high. Wildly conflicting policy (and political) goals are at play. More than one political career has been made or broken in such circumstances.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.