Boehner bows to conservative demands on ObamaCare defunding

Greg Nash

House Republican leaders bowed to conservative demands and announced plans Wednesday to strip out money for ObamaCare from a stopgap spending bill to keep the government running after Sept. 30.

The reversal by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) raises the stakes in a fiscal fight that could shutter much of the federal government. The continuing resolution (CR), which the House plans to vote on as soon as Thursday, is likely to be dead on arrival in the Senate, where Democratic leaders have vowed to reject any attempt to unravel President Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.

During a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning, GOP leaders also told members they would move legislation in the next week to raise the federal debt ceiling while delaying the implementation of the Affordable Care Act for a year and laying out a path forward for tax reform and the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline — all Republican priorities. 

Conservatives applauded the shift, a week after they rebelled against a leadership plan that would merely have forced the Senate to vote separately on a measure defunding the healthcare law.

“It looks like they did exactly what we wanted them to do,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said.

Obama accused House Republicans in a speech Wednesday to the Business Roundtable of trying to “extort” him over the debt limit and threatening to shut down the government over a law that’s been ratified by Congress, the Supreme Court and the electorate in the 2012 election.

Inside the closed-door Republican meeting, Boehner told his members that the fight over ObamaCare was in the Senate and that Republicans would get nothing unless they could come up with a plan they could pass on their own through the House.

“On every major issue we’ve faced for the past two and a half years, the math has been the same,” Boehner told the party, according to a person in the room. “House Republicans either find a way together to get to 218, or the Democrats who run the rest of Washington essentially get everything they want.”

In front of reporters, Boehner and other party leaders tried to put the best spin on a plan that was forced on them by conservatives both in and outside of Congress.

Asked if he had lost control of his conference, the Speaker replied: “Listen, we’ve got a lot of divergent opinion in the caucus, and the key to any leadership job is to listen.”

House Republicans immediately sent their plan to the Rules Committee on Wednesday as an amendment to the continuing resolution they offered last week. The vote could come as early as Thursday but is more likely to happen Friday, leadership aides said. 

The House could stay for a rare weekend session if the bill is not passed by Friday.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) later in the afternoon formally canceled a scheduled recess for next week. The House will reconvene on Wednesday.

Boehner has been buffeted by criticism from all corners of the political world in recent weeks. Conservatives have rapped him for not pushing hard enough in fiscal fights, while Democrats have said he is allowing the Tea Party to push him around.

The Speaker alluded to the criticism as he addressed Republicans on Wednesday, reminding them that he sought the job not to occupy a “big office” but to get things done.

“People say a lot of things about me,” Boehner said, according to two people in the meeting. “People outside this room. People inside this room. I just let that s--- roll off my back.”

He recalled a plaque that former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) kept in his office during the 1990s, which read: “Listen, learn, help and lead.”

“We listened to our colleagues over the course of the last week,” Boehner said. “We’ve got a plan that we’re happy with, and we’re going forward.”

The majority whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), told reporters: “I have not watched our conference be so united as we walk into this battle.”

While the plan yielded a momentary consensus, however, Republicans from the leadership on down said they had no idea what would happen if the Senate were to send back the continuing resolution without the defunding provision and with higher spending levels.

“I’m not going to predict what the Senate’s going to do or not do,” Boehner said. 

He added that it was “very premature” to speculate on how the House might respond, and he rejected talk of a government shutdown.

“There should be no conversation about shutting the government down. That’s not the goal here,” he said. “Our goal is to cut spending and to protect the American people from Obama-Care. It’s as simple as that.”

But even a supporter of the new measure, Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), suggested the simultaneous unveiling of a debt-ceiling plan indicated the likelihood that the spending bill would fail to become law.

“It’s kind of like the follow-up plan assuming that that fails,” he said.

“Ted Cruz and Mike Lee have been asking for this fight,” Fleming said, referring to the conservative senators. “The conservative base has been asking for this fight. So we’re going to give them the fight.”

Two conservative House members who had led the fight to strip out healthcare funding in the spending bill, Reps. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), said they planned to vote for the new bill. 

The House measure would keep the government funded through Dec. 15 at the current $986 billion spending rate, rather than the lower $967 billion level called for in the 2011 Budget Control Act. 

Republicans who had supported the leadership’s original plan and opposed a direct assault on ObamaCare in the shutdown fight said they would reluctantly support the more aggressive approach. But Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) predicted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would simply wait until the last minute and return a bill to the House that contained funding for the healthcare law and higher overall spending.

“I suspect that some of the people who might be very pleased with the tactic today might be very unhappy sometime late next week,” Dent said.

— Bernie Becker, Peter Schroeder and Justin Sink contributed.

— This story was originally posted at 10:20 a.m. and was last updatd at 8:15 p.m.