Why have House Republicans pursued their effort to defund, and now to delay, Obamacare so relentlessly, even though they have almost zero chance of success in the face of a rapidly-approaching deadline for shutting down the government? And why have they done so when many in their party have warned that a shutdown would be suicidal for the GOP?
I talked with one of the most vocal of the defund/delay advocates, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, on Friday night, as she waited to hear what path the House Republican leadership would take. It's safe to say her views reflected those of many of her conservative colleagues, and her reasoning was this: One, Obamacare as a policy is so far-reaching, so consequential, and so damaging that members of Congress should do everything they can -- everything -- to stop it before it fully goes into effect. Two, lesser measures to fight Obamacare -- repealing the medical device tax or making Congress purchase coverage through the exchanges without special subsidies -- are just not big enough to address the problem. And three, there have been government shutdowns in the past over far less urgent reasons that did not result in doom for Republicans.
"There is a very large group of us who believe that this is it, this isn't just another year, this isn't just another CR fight," Bachmann told me. "This is historic, and it's a historic shift that's about to happen, and if we're going to fight, we need to fight now."
"This isn't just another bill," Bachmann continued. "This isn't load limits on turnip trucks that we're talking about. This is consequential. And I think the reason why you've come to this flash point is that this is an extremely consequential bill that will impact every American, and that's why you have such passionate opinions. And we're not giving up and we're not caving in that easily."
For Bachmann and many of her colleagues, the enormity of the issue serves to highlight the problem with less extensive anti-Obamacare measures. "The Vitter Amendment isn't going to help real people," Bachmann told me. "It's going to be a political move, but it's not going to help real people. Obamacare will continue to destroy the economy. Now, repealing the medical device tax does help the economy. Here in the Beltway, we get the medical device tax issue. And in my state of Minnesota, we get the medical device tax issue. That's our industry. And I'm all for [repealing] it, but for most Americans, that is not something that they see that they want to get."
And what about delaying just the individual mandate for a year, as opposed to all of Obamacare? "That's worthless," Bachmann said.
Bachmann pointed to a recent Washington Post article which included a long list of government shutdowns in the last 35 years. "We were there 17 times," she said. "Five times under Jimmy Carter they did a government shutdown. Eight times under Reagan -- twice in October before the 1984 landslide. And they didn't worry about it, they just did it."
"I was looking at some of the history," Bachmann continued. "When the Republicans did the slowdown in '95, they did two, one in November and then one in December. What they were fighting over, the first one, was getting the budget to balance in seven years. And the second one was over Bill Clinton trying to do a sleight of hand -- he wanted to use Office of Management and Budget numbers versus Congressional Budget Office numbers. So the Republicans shut the joint down over using OMB numbers over the CBO. My, how times have changed. We're considered radical to have a ten-year balance under Paul Ryan. We're going to shut the government down under OMB versus CBO ? That's what they did then. Now, in my opinion, I don't think I'd be shutting the government down over that."
But even then, House Republicans did not suffer terrible consequences, as Bachmann and others point out. After the shutdowns, the GOP was re-elected to control of the House in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, and 2004 before losing in 2006.
So Bachmann, and many other Republicans, remain unafraid as the clock ticks down. "I don't get upset about brinksmanship," she told me. "That's what negotiation is. I was a federal tax lawyer. That's all I did -- negotiation. And in negotiation, you usually don't get anywhere until the final five minutes, and then everybody realizes OK, we're going to have to break and actually make this thing happen. That's how negotiation works."