After GOP Health Failure, Next Battle Could Shut Down Government

  • Obamacare repeal collapse could fuel Planned Parenthood fight
  • Fight may play out on bill to fund government after April 28

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Republican leaders are eager to avoid a government shutdown but the demise of their Obamacare repeal could leave some conservatives spoiling for a fight that raises the odds of a standoff.

The House Freedom Caucus, which helped bring down the GOP health-care bill, says Republicans have yet to notch a significant victory, despite controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House. One top promise they and other conservatives had to hoped to deliver on with the Obamacare repeal was defunding Planned Parenthood over its provision of abortions.

Now, their next chance comes with a spending measure needed to keep the government operating after April 28, when current funding runs out. But Democrats, and some Republicans, strongly defend the group, which provides many health services to women. The battle, which nearly led to a shutdown in 2015, could be enough to set Congress on a path to another one.

“I’m very concerned and we are going to have to try and work in a bipartisan fashion,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said Monday.

House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested Tuesday that the spending measure was the wrong place to wage the Planned Parenthood fight.

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“We think reconciliation is the way to go” on defunding the group, Ryan told reporters, referring to the mechanism Republicans were trying to use for the health-care bill that allows them to avoid a filibuster from Senate Democrats.

How much leverage conservatives and the Freedom Caucus will have in future fights remains unclear. Any spending measure needs at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate to be enacted, and lawmakers on the Appropriations panels have been quietly negotiating a bipartisan spending plan to fund the government through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

But conservatives, who defied personal pleas from President Donald Trump to back the Obamacare repeal bill, may feel emboldened to make demands on a stopgap, and could harangue GOP colleagues who cave in to Democratic demands. 

Trump, too, will be looking for legislative victories, which have so far been elusive. And given the sharp cuts he has proposed for non-defense spending, he may not have the same reservations as his predecessors about shutting down the government.

But John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, dismissed the idea. “There’s not going to be a shutdown,” he said. “No shutdowns.”

Signs of Turmoil

More broadly, the Republican dysfunction that killed Obamacare repeal could be a sign of more turmoil ahead in Congress for other GOP plans as well, including an ambitious tax overhaul, infrastructure spending and legislation to raise the nation’s debt limit.

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House GOP leaders will be relying in part on Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen to help sell a spending measure that can make it through the House. But Republicans are angry at the New Jersey Republican, according to a GOP aide, because he came out against the health-care bill Friday, hours away from the do-or-die vote. Angry lawmakers could take it out on his committee’s legislation, the aide said.

Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who sits on the appropriations panel, said GOP leaders should simply advance the measure currently being negotiated, ignore the Freedom Caucus and rely on Democratic help.

"I’m sorry but we had a revolt even when we didn’t do a bipartisan approach," he said referring to the health-care bill. "The paramount thing is to get budget stability" and look ahead to fiscal 2018 spending.

"Republicans shutting down the government would be the most politically stupid thing you could do," he said.

‘Total Control’

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Another member of the appropriations committee, Representative Tom Rooney of Florida, says he hopes that Trump will give them "cover" from the Freedom Caucus, with the argument that it’s better to just get passed this funding deadline and move on.

"If we shut down the government when we have total control, I don’t know what to tell you," he said.

The outcome could depend on how strongly Trump sticks to his demands. The president wants Congress to begin spending money on a border wall, even though Democrats are mostly opposed and Republican leaders aren’t in any hurry on that issue.

Trump has asked for $30 billion in emergency spending for defense, along with $18 billion in offsetting cuts in non-defense spending. Both Republicans and Democrats have said those cuts are a nonstarter. 

A new White House budget document sent to appropriators lists specific changes the administration wants as part of that $18 billion in cuts. 

Trump is proposing to target social programs in the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education budget with the deepest cut: $7.2 billion. Areas hardest hit include medical research, home heating aid, AmeriCorps and Pell Grants. 

Cuts would also put transit projects on hold, cut federal disaster grants and reduce contributions to United Nations peacekeeping, among dozens of other suggested reductions.

The congressional calendar also leaves no room for error. Lawmakers are scheduled for a two-week recess in April, leaving very little time before the funding deadline.

Planned Parenthood could still be the biggest sticking point, but some Republicans are sounding weary of conservatives’ demands on this issue.

"Don’t come to me and ask me to do that when you had your chance and you couldn’t put up the votes for that. " Cole said, referring to the House Freedom Caucus blocking the Obamacare repeal bill.

Risks of a Showdown

And even some conservatives are showing signs they see risks in forcing a showdown on the funding bill, particularly because the legislation will need Democratic votes to pass the Senate. 

"We can stand here and beat each other to bloody dust and get nothing accomplished," Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, one of the most strident opponents of abortion and Planned Parenthood, said Monday.

The White House also hasn’t articulated a clear position on the issue.

When pressed Monday on whether Trump would commit to pushing to defund the group in the upcoming spending bill, White House spokesman Sean Spicer wouldn’t say, explaining he didn’t want to "get ahead of our legislative strategy."

Trump himself tweeted on Sunday, “Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!”

Democrats, still savoring the implosion of the Obamacare repeal effort, see little reason to give in to conservatives’ demands.

“Democrats continue to work in good faith to develop a bipartisan package that supports critical services and investments and rejects poison pill riders," said Representative Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Room for a Deal

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, says he could see a deal where Democrats accept some emergency defense and border security spending in return for protection on undocumented immigrants who got protection under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

"I do know eventually you gotta deal with these 800,000 kids. They’re going to start losing their legal status and I don’t think we as a party are going to pull them back into the shadows,” he said Monday. “I’m open minded about dealing with those kids in this package, but that’s just me.”

Indeed, while Trump has said he’s open to granting the so-called "Dreamers" some kind of protected status, several House conservatives have tried to terminate the program on previous spending bills.

‘Driving the Train’ on Taxes

Even if Republicans manage to avoid a shutdown, the Obamacare repeal incident has raised doubts, including at the White House, about the party’s ability to avoid a repeat on its next big priority: a tax overhaul.

"We’re driving the train on this," said Spicer, signaling that Trump would take a more active role in the tax debate after delegating much of the health care tasks to Ryan.

But Spicer also said that administration -- including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, economic adviser Gary Cohn and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross -- have yet to reach agreement on a tax plan. Still unclear is whether Trump will support Ryan’s plan, which includes a controversial proposal to replace the 35 percent corporate income tax with a 20 percent levy on U.S. companies domestic sales and imports. Exports would be excluded.

Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also have to decide whether to adopt a new fiscal 2018 budget resolution, which could be a difficult feat given conservatives’ demands that the budget needs to be balances within 10 years. They could also decide to reuse the existing fiscal 2017 resolution, which they had originally planned to use for Obamacare repeal.

The timing for tax legislation is also unclear. While Ryan is pressing to pass a bill by August, Senate leaders have also suggested it may take longer, and Spicer left open that possibility as well.

— With assistance by Anna Edgerton, and Steven T. Dennis

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