Roll Call had a good piece yesterday on the thinking in the House about how best to de-fund Planned Parenthood, something that seems to be gaining in purchase as the perceived best political target for a GOP win on Capitol Hill this fall. It seems that Jefferson’s Steve Scalise, the House Majority Whip, is working on building support for the idea of using the budget reconciliation process to bypass a Senate Democrat filibuster and force President Obama either to accept a de-funding of Planned Parenthood or have a government shutdown on his head.
Scalise told CQ Roll Call Tuesday he is discussing with members the possibility of using budget reconciliation — a fast-track process that would allow Republicans to bypass the threat of a filibuster and force a bill through the Senate — to zero out federal dollars for Planned Parenthood.
The national network of reproductive health centers that also provide abortions is under fire from conservatives after the release of a series of undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the harvesting of fetal tissues.
Scalise cautioned there’s no guarantee his plan would succeed. “There’s no silver bullet,” the Louisiana Republican said.
And he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of putting Planned Parenthood defunding language in a must-pass continuing resolution — a strategy that many conservatives have argued is the only way to tie President Barack Obama’s hands.
Scalise brushed aside the proposition that GOP leaders are scrambling to come up with a plan to satisfy conservatives on the Planned Parenthood front in order to avoid what would be the second government shutdown in two years.
“We’re going to continue meeting with our members when we get back Wednesday and through the weekend until we all come together on a full strategy to go after Planned Parenthood,” Scalise said, himself en route back to Washington, D.C., from his district. “We want to keep the pressure on them.”
There is this perception in Washington that a government shutdown is a universal disaster for the Republican Party, though there isn’t any particular evidence to support such a contention. There was a shutdown in 2013, that Ted Cruz was excoriated for, and yet the GOP gained eight seats and a majority in the Senate. Why another shutdown in an odd-numbered year where there are no federal elections would be a big deal is never really explained; it’s just taken on faith.
Yes, during a shutdown the president has full authority to decide what government functions are essential and what functions are not, and yes, he’s now a lame duck not accountable to the voters. But those things are baked into the cake already, and any substantial overreaches by Obama can only hurt the Democrats in 2016 to the extent the public even notices them.
During the last shutdown, Obama pursued a “make it hurt” strategy by shutting down federal monuments and even imprisoning tourists at national parks like Yellowstone. One imagines if he does it again the political damage to his party could be considerable.
Still, getting enough Republicans – particularly in the Senate – to stand strong in order to get a consideration like de-funding Planned Parenthood done is going to be difficult, and we know that while Obama is a rather tame pussycat when negotiating with, say, Iranian mullahs he will refuse to give any ground whatsoever to Congress. A budget that de-funds Planned Parenthood is going to be vetoed; that you can assume. Whether Obama can be made to relent in the face of the public being told that the government is being shut down by the president because he demands that tax dollars be sent to an organization that chops up babies for spare parts is a question.
The federal government is set to shut down at the end of the month unless the GOP-controlled House and Senate can come to an agreement with the White House on a spending bill.
During his phone interview with CQ Roll Call, Scalise hammered his point home again and again: “If one of the objectives is to get a bill on President Obama’s desk that defunds Planned Parenthood, then budget reconciliation is the one way to ensure that happens. This is the most surefire way.”
While Scalise can’t promise an override of Obama’s inevitable veto of any bill that scraps funding for Planned Parenthood, budget reconciliation is likely the only legislative route out of the Senate, where Republicans lack the votes to overcome a filibuster.
With a 60-vote threshold for bills to even be brought up for debate on the floor, Senate Democrats have stymied practically every bill passed by the House GOP this Congress. Reconciliation bills, however, only require a simple majority for passage, which could give Senate Republicans an opening for a symbolic victory (the president has promised to veto any attempt to defund Planned Parenthood).
The simple majority-vote concept is especially appealing to congressional Republicans, who want to get things done in the face of partisan gridlock. For months, they have been looking at reconciliation as a powerful new tool in their arsenal that was only made possible by their sweep of Congress in the 2014 midterms.
Reconciliation bills, which are limited to measures that would result in changes in revenue and spending, can only be pursued once both chambers agree to a budget resolution, which wasn’t attainable when the House and Senate were controlled by different parties.
Having passed that once-elusive bicameral budget earlier this year, GOP lawmakers are now faced with the reality of what to use the reconciliation process for. They only have one shot per budget cycle and most members have set the Affordable Care Act as their primary target.
Scalise said defunding Planned Parenthood through reconciliation would not preclude that same bill from also repealing Obamacare. He would not say specifically who he had briefed so far on his proposal, or whether other GOP leaders were looped in, but he did say he had spoken to members of the three House committees with jurisdiction to make reconciliation recommendations: Education and the Workforce, Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce.
“Obamacare repeal is still on the table and the primary objective of budget reconciliation,” Scalise stressed. “The two can be combined if that’s the route we choose.”
If Obama won’t sign a budget bill that de-funds Planned Parenthood, then he certainly won’t sign on that de-funds Obamacare. That said, it might be worthwhile to de-fund both in the budget and then present him with a choice; he can have one of them back for this year, but not both. That would be a compromise offer that could make the president appear especially unreasonable should he refuse a bargain.
The problem is that Obama doesn’t particularly care whether independents or Republicans think he’s unreasonable. Most of them already do and it hasn’t bothered him a bit. It also doesn’t bother him that he’s flouting the will of the American people, expressed in the most recent election cycle by the Republican victories in 2014, by refusing to deal with Congress.
He just doesn’t care. And the steps necessary to make him care are more radical than the majority of Republicans on the Hill – or more precisely, at least a sufficient minority – are willing to take.
We can criticize that, certainly, and we can certainly castigate John Boehner in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate for their inability to come up with anything which doesn’t amount to Failure Theater to attempt to further a conservative agenda in Congress.
But to be fair, we do have to recognize that the challenge Boehner and McConnell have failed to meet is one that no previous congressional leaders have had to face. We’ve never had a president who out-and-out refused to make a deal with Congress before, and that’s what Obama has decided to do in the face of those 2014 GOP victories. He’s completely abandoned the constitutional process and just decided to strike out on his own.
Harry Truman ran against a “do-nothing Congress” when seeking re-election in 1948, but he didn’t bring on a constitutional crisis. Bill Clinton drove the country into a government shutdown or two, but ultimately made deals that led to balanced budgets and welfare reform. Ronald Reagan went around Congress and took his case to the American people, ultimately making some compromises that he even expressed regret for later. Obama has put up a stone wall and refused to offer any compromise whatsoever, with orders to his minions among the Senate Democrats to filibuster everything they can and keep it from getting to his desk.
That’s an unprecedented challenge. And while dumping Boehner and McConnell from their positions of leadership could very well be the right idea, it’s not known whether anybody in the House or Senate GOP caucuses, regardless of how stridently conservative they might be, would be able to solve it.
The only real way to move forward with an agenda like de-funding Planned Parenthood is going to be to elect a capable and committed conservative as president. While that’s an obvious statement, the problem is that the Republican voter base is out of patience with its current leadership and frustrated at their inability to rein in Obama, and now suspects that the GOP leadership isn’t even committed to reining him in. Whether it’s reasonable to demand a win in the current circumstances or not, that is the base’s demand. And if some deliverable isn’t produced, then you can make your plans for the Donald Trump anointment at the 2016 GOP convention in Cleveland – because that could well be coming.
Scalise knows this, and he’s trying to find a deliverable Congress can produce. But it’s not going to be easy.