Budget Impasse: Will Republicans Go Down With the Ship?

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Washington, D.C., has once again become a political battlefield, and the collateral damage is seeping into the rest of the country like toxic waste. The medium of the conflict is the the budget — without a stopgap funding measure known as a continuing resolution in place, Uncle Sam tripped into the new federal fiscal year (which began October 1) missing appropriations for all nonessential U.S. government activities — but the real fight is over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The ACA (or, Obamacare) is an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system that was signed into law in Mach of 2010, and it is perhaps the single most controversial piece of legislation passed during the Obama administration. Ostensibly, the ACA increases both the affordability and coverage of healthcare through the use of mandates, subsidies, and exchanges. The law is designed to increase the overall quality and efficiency of the U.S. healthcare system via regulation, aiming to increase competition and adjust provider incentives.

Both public and political support for the law has fallen fairly exclusively along party lines. Broadly speaking, the GOP believes that not only is the law misguided (“government is not the solution to our problem”) but that its implementation would actually be catastrophic for the U.S. economy. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats believe that the existing healthcare system is broken, having failed to provide coverage for tens of millions of Americans, and that the overhaul catalyzed by the ACA is the only way to fix it.

There is little room for negotiation or compromise when the two parties disagree at such a fundamental level. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tried to illustrate this during a 21-hour presentation at the end of September, right before the Senate voted on continuing resolution passed by the House that would defund the ACA. He decided to reach outside of the box for an analogy.

“You know, Green Eggs and Ham has some applicability, as curious as it might sound, to the Obamacare debate,” Cruz said. “Because three-and-a-half years ago, President Obama and Senate Democrats told the American people, just try Obamcare. Just try it. There were an awful lot of us, an awful lot of Republicans who were very, very skeptical of it.”

Reading the story on the Senate floor may seem, at first blush, like a ploy to fill time and make headlines, but Cruz brought his point (tortured though it may be) full circle. He drew a connection between the first-person narrator in Green Eggs and Ham and the American people, between the green eggs and ham and Obamacare, and, ostensibly, between Sam-I-Am and Obama.

If you’re in the mood, here’s Senator Cruz’s rendition of the story.

In the story, Sam-I-Am ends up caving to peer pressure and giving the green eggs and ham a try. Lo’ and behold, he likes them, but this point is not missed by Senator Cruz. “I’ll tell you the difference with Green Eggs and Ham is when Americans tried it, they discovered they did not like green eggs and ham, and they did not like Obamacare, either,” he said. “They did not like Obamacare in a box with a fox, in a house, or with a mouse.”

In other words, Senator Cruz — and the Americans he represents — do not want the ACA implemented in any way, shape, or form. This makes negotiation and compromise pretty much impossible. In effect, Republicans are trying to dynamite one of the cornerstones — perhaps the most fundamental cornerstone — of the Obama administration.

President Obama ran under the banner of healthcare reform in each of the elections he won, and has made it clear through every debate on the issue that this is the reform he believes in. The ACA is President Obama’s flagship, and it should come as no surprise that he is unwilling to sign any legislation that would undermine it.

So here we are: trudging into the second week of a partial shutdown of the U.S. government and still no clear resolution on the horizon. Democrats and Republicans have each dug deep political trenches on either side of the aisle and the space in between is no man’s land. The fight of the ACA has finally found a forum. Unfortunately, it’s the federal budget, a sad fact that has made no one — save for some extreme conservatives — happy.

The full scope of the damage that the shutdown will do to the country is unclear, but all estimates to date have been clouded by the specter of something much worse: a federal-level default. The U.S. is expected to hit its borrowing limit on October 17, after which time there will only be enough cash on hand to fund operations for a few days. It will be up to Congress to pass legislation to prevent a default.

Speaking to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., earlier in September, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew explained that, “If Congress fails to act and those measures are exhausted, we will have to use what cash balances we have on hand to fund the operations of a nearly $4 trillion government. At that point, meeting our nation’s financial obligations — including Social Security and Medicare benefits, payments to our military and veterans, and contracts with private suppliers — will be put at risk.”

Defaulting on these obligations will undermine the creditworthiness of the U.S., a prospect that should be so unimaginably horrible that policymakers scramble to avoid it, but has instead somehow turned into a piece of political leverage.

“I thought the fight would be over the debt ceiling,” Speaker Boehner told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday morning. “But you know, working with my members, they decided, well, let’s do it now. And the fact is, this fight was going to come, one way or the other. We’re in the fight.”

Americans are used to brinkmanship by now and have generally become adept at navigating the endless bureaucratic sea of finger-pointing that drowns out most productive dialogue (Question: who’s to blame? Answer: everyone), but this latest situation is particular insane. A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling — with a sample size in each district consisting of 600-700 registered voters — did not bode well for Republican popularity. Done over the end of last week, the poll showed that the Republican incumbents in 17 out of the 24 districts polled were found to be behind the generic Democrat in approval ratings.

Pollster Jim Williams illustrates just how significant those numbers are. In the National Journal, Williams explains that, “Democrats must pick up 17 seats to win control of the House. These poll results make clear that if the election were held today, such a pickup would be well within reach.” Williams also notes that this defies “conventional wisdom that gerrymandering has put the House out of reach for Democrats,” a scary thought for House Republicans.

Separate polls from both CBS and Fox News corroborate these findings. CBS found that 3 days into the government shutdown, 44 percent of Americans felt that Republicans in Congress were at fault, with only 35 percent placing the blame on President Obama and congressional Democrats.

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