Is Obamacare the GOP’s White Whale?
“The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them…All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up in the lee of things;…all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all evil…visibly personified …and made practically assailable in Moby Dick”
Moby Dick or, The White Whale Herman Melville
“We’re going to have a whale of a fight.”
House Speaker John Boehner, Aug 26, 2013 on the coming fiscal showdown.
No, Speaker Boehner is not Ahab, captain of Melville’s doomed whaling ship Pequod. But to many in his caucus, Obamacare is the White Whale. It surely is all that most maddens and torments. And like Ahab, many House Republicans and their deep-pocket supporters seem willing to risk their ship and all hands to destroy it.
At least 54 GOP House lawmakers insist they will refuse to fund the government past Oct 1 unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded until 2015. Many of them will likely refuse to extend the debt limit (which will be reached in mid-October) unless the health law is defunded. On this ship, it is not the captain but a passionate and mutinous minority of the crew that holds the tiller.
They feel a real urgency since people will begin buying insurance under the ACA in just two weeks. They know it will be very tough to eliminate that coverage once it begins on Jan 1.
That is one reason why Democrats will never agree to defund the health law now. And it is why the very demand risks locking both parties into dangerous and uncompromising positions. My Urban Institute colleague Donald Marron will testify tomorrow to the Joint Economic Committee on the economic risks of debt limit brinksmanship.
As long-time Washington budget watcher Stan Collender notes in his blog, the obsession with Obamacare fundamentally changes the dynamics of Washington’s fall fiscal ritual—which is tiresome but mostly predictable. Usually, the partisans argue over mere dollars. Democrats want to spend more, Republicans want to spend less, and, in the end, they settle on a number in between.
But as long as the House GOP insists on defunding the Affordable Care Act, there can be no middle-ground. Democrats won’t hobble the president’s signature legislative accomplishment just before it begins to benefit millions of uninsured people. Will they give up something else instead—maybe agree to fund federal agencies at somewhat revised sequester levels for another year?
That will be a tough sell. Remember, liberals are feeling a bit frisky themselves these days—having sunk the nomination of Obama favorite Larry Summers as Fed chairman and having helped walk back the president’s vow to attack Syria.
Where does this leave us? Maybe, at the last moment, this cadre of Republicans will finally abandon their Obamacare obsession. Maybe, at the last moment, Boehner will save the ship by pulling together a coalition of pragmatic Republicans and Democrats. They might agree to some additional modest spending cuts as the price of another year of relative budget peace, but leave the ACA intact. The ensuing mutiny of the committed could cost Boehner his speakership, of course.
Or maybe this year’s fiscal showdown ends like the Melville classic, with the Pequod sunk with all souls lost save Ishmael, who is left adrift in the vast Pacific, on a coffin.