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Shootout in the Obamacare Corral, Round 1

09/23/2013 05:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 23, 2013

In all the intense focus on the Obamacare fight now playing out in the halls of Congress, very few are pointing out a rather depressing fact: this is only "Round 1." Out of three of these bouts on the schedule before 2014 dawns. It's important to keep the big picture in perspective, in other words. We're going to have this week's big showdown before the first of October, then we're going to fight all during October over the debt ceiling, and then we're going to have the very same fight we're having right now all over again in December, just in time for holiday shopping.

I admit that I've recycled my "Obamacare Corral" headline, as I first used it back at the beginning of August, in an article examining the likely Republican position and how Democrats should position themselves. This article ended with:

There will indeed be a battle royale in Congress over Obamacare next month. The Republican Party now cannot avoid it. Their base is demanding it. The only surprise is going to be the fact that the biggest fight isn't going to be with the Democrats, it's going to be a Republican-on-Republican donnybrook which is going to leave half the party absolutely enraged with the other half. It barely even matters what Democrats do -- this script is going to play out in any case. It's really hard to see any sort of downside for Democrats, and any sort of upside for Republicans -- even among the Tea Party base, who is now almost guaranteed to be disappointed with the outcome at the end of the day. To sum this up into one final amusing metaphor -- next month, there's a-gonna be a shootout in the Obamacare Corral. The only problem for Republicans is that they're lining up in a circle, and aiming at themselves.

Which, as prognostications go, has proved pretty accurate (if I do say so myself). We're now in a brief window where the Tea Party is experiencing the apex of their power over Obamacare, where they're all patting themselves on the back for a job well done in the House, and where John Boehner is actually their hero (for the time being). This will all be shattered approximately a week from now, when Boehner will introduce the Senate's continuing resolution budget bill (with Obamacare funding restored), and it will pass the House with lots of Democratic votes and a handful of Republican votes.

But even though Tea Partiers are riding high right now on a fantasy, Democrats should be warned that it would be just as big a fantasy to think that the battle will be over next week, when such a budget passes and the government shutdown is averted. Because Round 2 will begin immediately afterward. In fact, it has already begun in the House.

Boehner knows full well how enraged the Tea Partiers are going to be when Obamacare survives the last House vote intact. They're going to be calling him all sorts of nasty names, and doing so in public. The favored derogatory term (to hazard an easy guess) will likely use the word "surrender." Boehner is not going to allow any time for this to gain momentum, though, as he will move the House on to the next -- even bigger -- showdown, over raising the debt ceiling.

The dynamics of the debt ceiling showdown, as it relates to Obamacare, are interesting, however -- and not in such a good way for Democrats. The debt ceiling debate will differ from the government shutdown budget debate in a few key ways. First, it will not be a hard deadline (such as "the first day of October"). It'll be somewhat of a moving target (it's already shifted around and currently stands at the rather-vague "at some point from mid-October through mid-November"). This will lessen the pressure to pass something by a certain hard date, at least at the start. The second difference is that the stakes are incredibly higher. This is, after all, the full faith and credit of the United States of America, and destroying that could very well destroy the entire planet's economy. Which is on a whole different level than Yellowstone being closed and soldiers getting IOUs instead of paychecks. And the third big difference between the two fights is that the Republicans' demand is going to sound a lot more reasonable than what they're fighting for right now.

It's the last two of these which bear examination (the scheduling problem will resolve itself, because the longer the debate goes on, the more the pressure is going to increase). The enormity of defaulting on our debt is going to benefit both sides in the political fight. For Republicans, it is much bigger leverage than just shutting the government down. The fallout of a default would be so severe that they'll be able to use it to frighten Democrats into acting. If everything falls apart in the next few days on the continuing resolution, Democrats may indeed sit back and allow the Tea Partiers in the House to shut the government down. They will not, however, be able to use this as a bargaining position in the credit limit battle, due to the catastrophic consequences of a default. But, as mentioned, default is a two-edged sword -- because Republicans will be under enormous pressure from Wall Street and their big-money donors not to allow America to default on its bills. Much more pressure than they are getting now, on the shutdown fight. Billions of dollars of private money (held by some of those same big Republican donors) will be on the line. Puppet strings will be pulled.

The Republican strategy for "defunding" Obamacare has largely been seen by Democrats (and an encouraging number of the media) as somewhat of a joke. In the first place, even the bill the House just passed doesn't actually defund most of Obamacare (see: the difference between "mandatory" and "discretional" spending). In the second place, the whole exercise is -- quite rightly -- seen by most Americans as nothing more than a last-minute temper tantrum by a Tea Party who couldn't convince voters at the ballot box of their position, last year. And there's a reason why part of the American mythos is scorning the tactic of "I'm taking my bat and my ball and I'm going home!" (or, perhaps, "holding my breath until I turn blue!"). Tantrums aren't pretty when small children mount them, and they're even less attractive when members of Congress use the same tactic.

Smarter Republicans have apparently realized this. They've let the Tea Partiers have their "defunding" moment in the sun, but when the debt ceiling battle is joined, the Republicans are planning on a much subtler tactic -- let's just delay Obamacare for a year, instead of killing it off completely. One year -- what difference could that make? It sounds almost reasonable, and it certainly will sound a lot better to the public at large than the "kill Obamacare" tactic they're now using. Republicans know full well that delaying Obamacare for a year brings them two big benefits. It will push implementation past the 2014 midterm elections -- leaving them free to demagogue on the issue without voters seeing for themselves what the reality of "Obamacare" truly is. And it means they can fight this battle every single year, and just "delay" Obamacare, year by year, into obscurity. As Little Orphan Annie might sing: "Obama(care), Obama(care), I love ya, Obama(care) -- you're always a year aaa-waaaay!"

All of that is only going to be Round 2, remember. The third round of this fight is going to happen right before the end of this calendar year. Because even if the Senate and the House pass a continuing resolution this week and avoid a government shutdown, this bill will only fund the government for less than three months. Which automatically reschedules the entire fight over again in December.

Democrats scoff at the chances of Round 3 being won by Republicans, but the way Republicans figure it, it will be their final bite at this particular apple. The insurance exchanges will open for business at the start of October, but even if a bunch of people sign up for insurance, the coverage of these policies will not begin until January. This means that the benefits of such insurance won't be real in late December, but Republicans are hoping that they'll have plenty of horror stories (which the inevitable snafus setting up such a sweeping system will undoubtedly produce). If they're smart, they'll stick with the "let's just delay it for a year" strategy in the December budget battle, and jettison the "defund" idea completely.

Predicting the outcomes of each of these fights is tough, because the second and third rounds are going to depend heavily on what happens before we get to them. It is certainly looking like the first round is going to go to the Democrats, and that the Tea Party folks are going to be downright apoplectic this time next week. But, just as it is folly for the Tea Party people to be triumphantly celebrating right now, it will also be folly for Democrats to be too triumphant next week. Because it won't be the end of the fight. After we get through the first government shutdown battle, there will be two more such bouts of brinksmanship before 2014 dawns. I know it's rather depressing to consider, but we've all got to keep things in the proper perspective.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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