Has Repealing Obamacare Become the GOP’s Great White Whale?

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Gregory Peck In 'Moby Dick
The whale is about to veto this hunt.Photo: Archive Photos/2012 Getty Images

Congress has a lot on its plate for the rest of the year, with some prospects for final passage of a highway bill, a No Child Left Behind rewrite, all sorts of news-sensitive legislation relating to the fight against ISIS and the handling of refugees, and then the little matter of providing appropriations for the rest of the fiscal year.

But for congressional Republicans, the highlight of the holiday season may not be any of these substantive matters, but instead, a grand empty gesture: forcing a presidential veto of legislation designed to cripple if not repeal the Affordable Care Act of 2010. 

We are told today by Politico’s Everett and Haberkorn that Senate Republicans, working feverishly over the Thanksgiving break, have come up with a draft budget “reconciliation” bill that guts Obamacare sufficiently to satisfy conservatives, while meeting the arcane germaneness requirements of the Senate parliamentarian and keeping enough “moderate” Republicans onboard to ensure passage. A “reconciliation” bill, typically utilized to enforce budget cuts, cannot be filibustered, and thus bypasses the Senate bottleneck that has kept most major Republican bills from enactment. 

An earlier reconciliation bill passed by the House in October did not go far enough on Obamacare to overcome conservative objections from the Senate and the presidential campaign trail, but House Republicans seem prepared to rubber-stamp whatever the Senate can pass. One key lubricant in the new draft is a provision phasing out the Obamacare Medicaid expansion after two years, which placates Republican senators from states that have already expanded Medicaid, who can claim an eventual Obamacare “replacement” plan — details TBD — will avoid any abrupt termination of coverage. A final treat for conservatives is language “defunding” Planned Parenthood, which may or may not be attached separately to other “must-pass” legislation in December.

Thus, after more than 50 votes to “repeal Obamacare” in one form or another, the GOP seems poised to enact legislation guaranteed to invite a presidential veto. Since this will surprise absolutely no one, you have to wonder why this quite literally fruitless maneuver seems so important to congressional Republicans. 

There are two interrelated theories for this obsession that make at least some sense. The first is that this reconciliation bill is a dry run for what Republicans will do if they win the presidency and hold onto control of Congress next year. Indeed, in the fall of 2012 Republicans were reportedly working on a similar reconciliation bill to cripple Obamacare and work other legislative mischief in anticipation of a Mitt Romney victory and a Senate hold. Three years later, there are many more Obama policies that Republicans might well try to reverse in a reconciliation bill that could swell to the dimensions of the famous Reagan Budget of 1981, but showing mechanically how it might be done could perhaps have some precedential value. 

A broader explanation is that by actually getting a crucial conservative priority bill onto Obama’s desk, congressional Republicans are trying to rebut the widespread suspicion among elements of the party base — being fanned, of course, by presidential candidates like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump — that they are complicit in perpetuating Obama’s policies, even as they denounce them as Marxist or even Satanic. Any truly conspiracy-minded right-wing “outsider,” however, will understand that congressional Republicans got their act together to “repeal Obamacare” only in the sure knowledge they would be blocked by a presidential veto. So this gesture could prove to be empty politically as well as substantively. 

One final possibility is that trying to screw up Obamacare (and every other Obama policy within reach) has become such an end in itself that it’s the GOP’s Great White Whale, beyond rational calculation or political prudence. If that is ultimately the case, we may need a national mental-health intervention if Republicans are again kept from total power by voters next November.