How the GOP Congress Saved Obama from the Dog House

The former GOP House Majority Leader on why his party hasn't learned the lessons of the '95-'96 shutdown

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Alex Wong / Corbis

U.S. President Barack Obama leaves a policy luncheon after meeting with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, 2013.

Tuesday October 1, 2013, must have been a dreaded day for President Obama and his party, ever since the day they passed the Affordable Care Act with its deferred implementation date. That was the day on which the American people would be forced to comply with the mandates and cost of “Obamacare.” That was the day that all those young people who had so eagerly voted for “change they could believe in” would discover themselves to be compelled to buy insurance at inflated rates in order to subsidize older people. That was the day that the cherry-picked exceptions unilaterally granted by the president to his political cronies would stand in stark contrast to the punitive mandate most of us could not escape. That was the day that the press would report stories from all over the nation about how unhappy the American people were with this big, clumsy, unworkable system. Surely the president and his party must have known that if the news of the day was Obamacare, they were going to be in the dog house with the American people.

But something happened on the way to the dog house. They found their reprieve from the most unlikely source: Congressional Republicans rode to their rescue by changing the subject. They made Majority Leader Reid an offer he could easily refuse. Either the Senate Democrats could accept continued government spending at House-set levels, lower than the Senate levels (which they had already done), and accept total defunding of Obamacare (which they had already said they would never do), or they could reject it—in which case the government would just “shut down.”

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This must have seemed like pennies from heaven to the Democrats. All they had to do was refuse to be “blackmailed” by this “extreme” and “irresponsible” demand, and the news of the day would turn from Obamacare, where Democrats were big-time losers, to a government shutdown—something that always hurts Republicans. (If there was one thing we Republican learned in the ’95-’96 shutdown, it’s that presidents don’t get blamed for government shutdowns… Republicans do.)

Just say no, and they were off the hook. Not a bad deal. So they did just that. Frankly, it is a change that is working out quite well for them.

What about the Republicans, split internally between the Tea Party and the more moderate members? They are in a state of serious internecine conflict. Tempers are short and patience is running thin. Having impaled themselves on the wrong demand, they cannot now make new, more attractive demands with credibility. The Democrats need only retain the posture of being sad and disappointed while they say “no,” and the Republicans will remain stuck on their own stick.

The Republicans have successfully snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory, and the Democrats will let them live with it until such time that they sue for peace. This is not going to end well for Congressional Republicans. But, while the pain is inevitable, the suffering is optional. There is a way to turn this around and Speaker Boehner is just the guy to do it.

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John Boehner need only rise to the level of his ability and to the stature of his office. He should bring a continuing resolution to the floor with House-level funding, a one-year delay of the individual mandate and a proviso that any Obamacare exemption granted to any entity must be available to all. This last proviso not only deals with the congressional exception, but also highlights and puts an end to President Obama’s cherry-picking cronyism.

The Speaker should then allow the Democratic minority to have an amendment (in the form of a substitute in accordance with regular order in the body). If Minority Leader Pelosi offers a clean continuing resolution, it will most likely prevail, and the House Republican ordeal will be over. They can then get back to serious work—and if they have learned the lesson to not start a fight they can’t win, they may just avoid the same debacle on the debt limit later this month.

Finally, Speaker Boehner will, if he does this, demonstrate that he has the stature of the office and will remain Speaker for so long as he desires.

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