WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans plan to condition a short-term spending bill for averting a government shutdown next month on making Senate Democrats vote on — but not necessarily pass — a tea party-backed plan to dismantle President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
The move would be a partial victory for conservatives demanding a House vote to "defund 'Obamacare'" as part of any must-pass stopgap funding bill. But GOP leaders are employing an unusual procedural trick to make sure that the tea party measure doesn't get in the way of smooth passage of a straightforward stopgap funding bill before the Oct. 1 start of the new budget year.
The unusual strategy would start with a House vote this week on a stopgap funding bill that includes the provision demanded by conservatives to block the controversial health care law. The two issues, however, would automatically be decoupled when they're sent to the Senate. The maneuver would force Democrats controlling the Senate to vote first on defunding Obamacare before the House sends over a "clean" stopgap funding bill as a separate measure.
GOP leaders are set to unveil the idea to the rank and file at a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning and have slated a vote for later this week if enough Republicans buy into it.
"This plan keeps Republicans united against the implementation of Obamacare while forcing the Democrat-controlled Senate to choose whether to defund or defend this unpopular and ill-conceived law," said Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas.
The idea may not sit well with some conservatives who may see it as a tactical retreat that in the end won't touch Obama's health care law as its implementation marches ahead. It also would mean that House Republicans would need to pass the measure without any help from Democrats unlikely to vote for it over its attack on Obamacare.
"Leadership doesn't get it. It's not about getting a vote; it's about the issue," said conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who is often a thorn in the side of GOP leaders. "We've had 41 votes. The next vote should be on must-pass legislation."
The conservative Club for Growth, a group that sometimes supports Republicans challenging GOP incumbents it deems too moderate, came out swinging against the proposal.
"When members were at home over recess, did they hear their constituents ask for legislative tricks or principled leadership? Trying to fool Republicans into voting to fund Obamacare is even worse than offering a bill that deliberately funds it," said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. "I hope this proposal is nothing more than a bad joke and is quickly discarded."
GOP aides requested anonymity to discuss the strategy because lawmakers have yet to be briefed on it. They cautioned that a final decision won't be made until after Republican leaders get feedback.
The stopgap spending bill is required because of the enduring Washington gridlock over the budget and would fund the government through mid-December. The additional 11 weeks of government funding would buy time for negotiations in October and November on whether to replace automatic spending cuts known as sequestration with alternative cuts elsewhere in the budget.
The GOP measure would maintain government spending at current rates, which include $64 billion in cuts to agency budgets mandated by sequestration. The across-the-board cuts have brought the so-called discretionary budget for core agency operations below $1 trillion and Democrats — and some GOP defense hawks — are eager to reverse them.
Passing the stopgap spending measure is the first major must-pass item on a packed fall agenda. Passing such a measure, known as a continuing resolution in Washington-speak, is typically routine.
But action this year has been complicated by a campaign among grassroots conservative activists to try to use the measure to mount a last-ditch campaign against Obama's health care measure. Conservative groups like the Heritage foundation have been stoking the issue and conservative senators like Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, are strongly backing the idea.
Eighty House Republicans have signed a letter by Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina urging GOP leaders to "defund the implementation and enforcement of ObamaCare" in the continuing resolution. Some of them may be reluctant to sign onto a strategy that's designed to get a clean funding bill to Obama's desk.
GOP leaders' calculations are rooted in political reality. Any effort to derail the health care law is a dead letter in the Senate and would surely be vetoed by Obama anyway in the unlikely event it made it to his desk. If the House passed the Obamacare measure paired with stopgap funding bill, the Senate could simply act to strip it out, which would likely force the House to knuckle under to their Senate rivals and increases the chances of a shutdown if it sparked a revolt among unhappy conservatives.
GOP leaders are also likely to make the case that the parliamentary sleight-of-hand would eliminate the chance that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nev., would try to use the stopgap funding bill to reverse some of the sequestration cuts, which are the result of the 2011 deficit "supercommittee" failure to reach a deal on deficit cuts to replace them.