Republican leaders in the House of Representatives are slowly leaving off mention of Obamacare — the popular moniker for the Affordable Care Act — in their political rhetoric. After nine full days of the partial government shutdown, the party’s strategy has noticeably shifted from primarily focusing on the need to tie any continuing resolution to fund the government to the defunding of the health care reform to calls for Congress to rein in the federal deficit.
It is a switch that the GOP’s leadership is counting on to strengthen their position in the fight over raising the United States debt ceiling, or the total amount of money that the government is authorized to borrow in order to meet its existing legal obligations. It is set by Congress and applies to debt owed to the public and federal government trust funds like Social Security. Currently, the debt ceiling is set at almost $16.7 trillion.
The government shutdown was the result of the GOP’s efforts to detail the implementation of the health care reform. Republicans — led by Tea Party-backed conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas — refused to vote for any spending bill that appropriated money for Obamacare, while to Democrats, that amendment was unacceptable. Leaders of the party, Ryan, Cantor, and Speaker of the House John Boehner, adopted that strategy only reluctantly.
The switch in party tactics is evident in two opinion pieces published Wednesday — one authored by Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, for the Wall Street Journal and one authored by Majority Leader Eric Cantor for the Washington Post. Ryan’s piece contained not one mention of Obamacare, while Cantor’s article referenced Obamacare only when describing President Obama’s unwillingness to negotiate over raising the debt limit as evidence of the political dysfunction in Washington.
“For three years, Congress and the White House have been building to this moment. Not the debt limit or Obamacare specifically, but this clarifying moment of Washington dysfunction. President Obama has led us here by continually thwarting the will of Congress and dismissing its role in our constitutional republic. This must end,” Cantor wrote.
In these opening sentences of his article, the representative from Virginia deftly framed the stalemate as a function of an improper distribution of power between the executive and legislative branches of government, as his complaint that the president has dismissed the role of Congress made obvious. That argument left his his party’s problems with Obamacare as a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.
Similarly, just as Cantor said this moment in time could be a “clarifying moment,” Ryan argued that the fact that the United States is about to hit the debt ceiling provides an opportunity for “breakthrough,” as he termed it. “We have an opportunity here to pay down the national debt and jump-start the economy, if we start talking, and talking specifics, now,” Ryan wrote.
That the president has refused to negotiate is not only standing in the way of “common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlement programs and tax code” that would end the shutdown and raise the borrowing limit, but it is unprecedented. Many presidents have negotiated a deal to raise the debt ceiling: in 1985, Ronald Reagan made a deal with congressional Democrats that set deficit caps, while in 1997 Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans agreed to increase the debt ceiling in exchange for reforming Medicare and cutting capital-gains taxes.
Even Obama himself has negotiated to increase the debt ceiling. In 2011, he signed the Budget Control Act, which set up automated, across-the-board spending cuts — the sequester — in exchange for a debt-ceiling hike.
“This isn’t a grand bargain,” Ryan wrote, “for that, we need a complete rethinking of government’s approach to helping the most vulnerable, and a complete rethinking of government’s approach to health care.” But it is a way to “get a down payment on the debt and boost the economy,” he argued.
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, has warned lawmakers that if Congress fails to increase the debt ceiling by October 17, the United States will be at risk of defaulting on its debt. “Among the risks that we control, the biggest threat to sustained growth in our economy is the recurrence of manufactured crises in Washington and self-inflicted wounds,” he said before the Senate Committee on Finance.
“Unfortunately, we now face a manufactured political crisis that is beginning to deliver an unnecessary blow to our economy — right at a time when the U.S. economy and the American people have painstakingly fought back from the worst recession since the Great Depression.” But, despite Lew’s fear, many in the Republican camp are not thrilled about the changing tone of Ryan’s and Cantor’s rhetoric. In response to Ryan’s opinion piece, Amanda Carpenter, speechwriter and senior communications adviser to Cruz, tweeted, “There is one big word missing from this op-ed. It’s start with an O and ends with BAMACARE.”
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