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Conservatives Use Budget Deadline To Revive Obamacare Debate

Linda Norman (right) and Joanna Galt, both from Florida, hold their banners during a rally against the health care law Tuesday outside the U.S. Capitol.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Linda Norman (right) and Joanna Galt, both from Florida, hold their banners during a rally against the health care law Tuesday outside the U.S. Capitol.

With the pause button pushed on the congressional debate over Syria, the House is turning its attention back to the issue that is expected to dominate the fall: the budget.

The long-running fight over spending and the debt is back. The House was supposed to act this week to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month, and leaders had hoped to avoid drama. But the vote has been delayed, and drama is brewing.

Conservatives who oppose the president's health care law, Tea Party groups and others have been trying all year to get Republicans in Congress to take a stand, and to use one of the various cliffs and budget deadlines as leverage to defund or otherwise destroy Obamacare.

They spent the August recess arguing that this month's budget deadline presents the last best chance to undo the law. But on Tuesday, House Republican leaders unveiled a plan to keep the government funded without any real likelihood of defunding the law.

The idea is sort of convoluted and full of congressional procedure. There would be a single vote in the House on a measure to fund government operations through December, while separately defunding Obamacare. Then once the bill was sent over to the Senate, senators would be forced to first vote on funding for Obamacare — before taking up the government funding language.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., explained the idea at a press conference:

"The House has taken a stand numerous times on its opinion of Obamacare," Cantor said. "It's time for the Senate to stand up and tell their constituents where they stand on this atrocity of a law."

It probably goes without saying the Democratic-controlled Senate would vote to uphold one of the president's signature accomplishments, making this just another show vote.

Cantor has suggested the next debt ceiling fight, expected in October, would present a better opportunity to attack Obamacare.

Outside the Capitol, the House leadership plan was greeted with derision by Jenny Beth Martin, the president of Tea Party Patriots, who whipped up a crowd of supporters.

"Over the next few days we're going to see all sorts of games, showmanship, shenanigans and other things people in the ruling elite will try to do to pull the wool over our eyes," Martin said.

All of the major outside conservative groups have called for a no-vote on the GOP government funding plan. But it isn't just the outsiders that House leaders have to worry about. A line of conservative House members streamed out to the rally, to subtly and not so subtly criticize the plan.

"We've got some folks that say they're opposed to Obamacare, but they just announced a strategy to make absolutely certain that the U.S. House will not — will not defund Obamacare," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Republican from Kansas.

Huelskamp is an outspoken critic and general thorn in the side of the House leadership. But he's not alone. There are somewhere between 15 and 30, maybe more, in the Republican conference who are unlikely to support this strategy. And given the current balance of power in the House, if Democrats are united against something, it doesn't take many Republican defectors to cause major trouble for the leadership.

New York Democrat Louise Slaughter is ranking member on the Rules Committee, and she says if conservatives mounted an effort to block the bill from reaching the floor: "I think I can assure you that every Democrat vote will be there with them."

A House leadership aide now says a vote on the spending measure has been moved to next week, citing the need to spend more time working with members on the complicated plan. Generally, this is a sign the votes aren't there for passage.

And just remember, this was supposed to be the low-drama fall budget battle.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.

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