As Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele recently put it, it is the best of times and the worst of times for Republicans and their ability to influence legislation in Congress.
On the one hand, now in control of the House under Speaker John Boehner, the GOP can block any new bill from becoming law. They just won’t be able to pass many themselves, including their agenda to roll back many of Obama’s initiatives enacted over the last two years.
In more concrete terms, take new gun control legislation proposed after the shooting in Arizona. It’s dead on arrival in the House since Republicans traditionally support gun rights.
But an effort by the GOP to actually pass its own bill, full repeal of Obamacare, is proving a much harder climb.
The GOP repeal bill will almost certainly pass the House. Then what? It faces death in the Harry Reid-controlled Senate. Were the repeal bill to miraculously survive a Democratic filibuster there, President Obama would veto it.
To overcome a veto, Republicans would need to put together a two-thirds majority to override it.
In the Senate, that would mean Republicans picking up 20 Democratic or Independent votes to override a veto, nearly half the number of their own conference. That’s if they kept every member of their party in line.
In the House, Republicans would need to pick up 48 Democratic votes if they could keep every GOP member in line. That might be easier than the Senate, but is no picnic.
Thus, on full repeal of Obamacare: stalemate, or rather, Democratic victory since the law was already enacted.
“This House vote with the size of the majority will clearly go through, probably with some Democratic support in the House,” said Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t feel that it’s gonna, you know, make it in and out of the Senate floor and nor would I expect President Obama who signed and enacted it into law to sign it if it ever got to his desk.”
That same scenario is expected to play out on many issues. House Republicans can pass bills until they’re blue in the face, but most their efforts will be legally meaningless.
Not without purpose, however. House passage of Republican initiatives could build momentum and put Democrats on the defensive. Then-President Bill Clinton famously took welfare reform as his own issue when the initiative achieved sufficient popularity that it became dangerous to continue opposing.
But beyond issues that are popular enough among voters to overcome natural Democratic opposition, there are some bills Obama must pass through the Boehner-led House.
Appropriations, or spending bills, must be signed into law every year or the government will not be legally authorized to spend money from the Treasury and will thus shut down, a scenario few desire.
The battle over spending bills, then, will form the true crux of GOP power – not just to block, but to achieve some of their own ends as well.
In appropriations bills, Republicans can prevent the government from spending money on implementing at least parts of Obamacare, the unilateral global warming regulations at EPA, and other top priorities.
The same scenario will play out over raising the debt ceiling, which carries the threat of a government default.
“Obama needs a debt limit increase politically more than Republicans need it,” said a senior GOP aide, “so we’ll push for significant spending cuts and budget process reform in exchange for any possible debt ceiling increase.”
For the spending bill chokepoints, the threat of government shutdown looming as the eventual worst case scenario will force both the GOP and Democrats to avoid the appearance of intransigence, lest the public blame them for the holdup.
For instance, part of the reason Bill Clinton won his duel with Newt Gingrich in 1995 over that government shutdown was that Gingrich threw a temper tantrum on Air Force One, appearing petty and drawing wide mockery.
A school of shutdown hawks among House Republicans believes both the political climate is vastly different from the Gingrich era and that Obama is far less politically nimble than Clinton.
“If the government shuts down, I do think we could win that fight politically this go around because of massive deficits and the growing public appetite for federal cuts and deregulation. Also, President Obama is no slick Willie,” said the senior GOP aide quoted above.
That view is far from unanimous, as some fear a shutdown would be a disaster.
The health care piece meal approach
Meanwhile, though the push for full repeal of Obamacare is destined for a quick death in Congress, Republicans will afterwards turn to a piecemeal approach – pushing bills that repeal unpopular parts of Obamacare like a burdensome “1099” tax reporting requirement and the individual health insurance mandate.
The perfect example is the tax reporting piece, which requires businesses to report every business-to-business expense over $600. The provision, which does not relate at all to health care, was added by Democratic Montana Sen. Max Baucus as a means of increasing revenue to pay for the bill, since it is expected to cut down on tax fraud.
But it is now widely unpopular and its repeal should be an easy task for the GOP.
That ease is exactly why Republicans are eying using 1099 repeal as a means of leveraging their power, attaching other priorities.
A second GOP House aide said “there are different schools of thought” on the best strategy for leveraging these piecemeal votes, including “poison pill” amendments that will keep the issue alive as a rallying cry heading into a critical presidential election.
Pieces of the piecemeal approach include 1099 tax reporting, the individual mandate that will impose a fine on those who do not purchase health insurance, the employer mandate that will impose a fine on employers who do not provide health insurance for their employees, the “medical loss ratio” which governs what percentage health insurance companies may spend on administrative costs, and the cuts in subsidies to free market health care approaches like Health Savings Accounts.
Other levers of power
Besides health care, Republicans will have several opportunities to “extract their pound of flesh,” as one Democratic lobbyist puts it. Here are some of them:
President Obama recently agreed to a free trade agreement with South Korea, but he still needs congressional approval to finalize it. “If he doesn’t get Congress, he looks like an idiot,” said a trade lobbyist pushing for the agreement.
Republicans are posturing to get Obama and congressional Democrats to sign-off on other trade agreements, potentially with Columbia and Panama.
President Obama, top Democrats, and key business group the Chamber of Commerce are talking about the potential for significant tax reform that would eliminate “loopholes” and simplify the code.
Any effort at tax reform would require significant concessions from each side, probably netting Republicans lower taxes. But this issue is extremely fragile, insiders say.
With gas prices increasing, there’s the opportunity for congressional action to increase energy production, even if the oil spill in the Gulf Coast has somewhat poisoned the issue.
“Energy (oil drilling) comes to mind as a possibility, since gas prices are soaring again,” said a senior GOP aide about places the two parties might work together.
This issue is nebulous, but each party will need to be seen by voters as working diligently to improve the economy given the high unemployment rate.
Politically, many of the legally meaningless actions of both parties will give them momentum and public backing for their initiatives.
The public debate over showdowns will have a huge impact on what ends up getting done.
Remembering the 1990s, Republicans might fear appearing too rigid in their opposition to the president. But Obama could come off looking that way, too, another GOP House aide adds.