Is He the Reason Defunding ObamaCare Will Fail?

by Seth Millstein

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said today that he won’t join a filibuster in the upcoming Senate battle over ObamaCare, the latest indicator of many that the fantastical charge to defund the Affordable Care Act will go down in huge, spectacular flames.

It’s not that McConnell is averse to filibuster threats; he practically subsists on them. He's essentially a machine that derives its energy from legislative gridlock. No, the reason behind McConnell’s decision is simply that the current plan to defund ObamaCare is so absurd, it would require him to filibuster a bill that he supports.

Yeah, it’s confusing and stupid, but hey, welcome to the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. It all comes down to the way Senate votes are structured, and how many votes are required at each stage. In short:

  • The bill in question, which was passed by the House of Representatives, funds the federal government but defunds ObamaCare.
  • 60 votes are required to begin considering the bill in its initial form; this is called a “cloture vote.” Yes, the Senate actually has to vote on whether or not to vote on a bill; this is a prime example of why people hate the Senate.
  • After that, amendments will be offered. They will only require 51 votes to pass.
  • Finally, the amended bill—whatever it looks like—will be taken up for a final vote. It, too, will only require 51 votes to pass.

So, then, there’s nothing to stop the 54 Senate Democrats from stripping out the defunding language via an amendment, then passing the final bill and sending it to President Obama’s desk. That way, the government will continue to be funded, and the Affordable Care Act will remain on the books. This chain of events is almost certainly the one that will ultimately transpire.

But in order for that to happen, the bill must pass that first hurdle—the cloture vote. And that requires 60 votes, which Democrats don’t have.

In theory, then, 40 Republicans could band together and block the bill from even being considered—that is, filibuster it—until Democrats agree not to amend it. That’s the strategy that the defunders, led by Ted Cruz, are taking. But this would require 40 Senators to stage a filibuster. And that brings us back to McConnell.

The minority leader has enormous influence over his caucus, and if he wanted, he could probably convince 40 of his Republican colleagues to stage a filibuster of the bill. But because they can only filibuster the bill before it’s amended, this would require Republicans to essentially block a bill that they’re on the record supporting. And McConnell doesn’t want to do that:

Sen. McConnell supports the House Republicans’ bill and will not vote to block it, since it defunds ObamaCare and funds the government without increasing spending by a penny.

Without the support of McConnell—or his deputy, John Cornyn, who also opposes Cruz’s gambit—the filibuster is unlikely to happen. Here's how one Senate aide referred to the futility of Cruz's proposal:

This is not a gimmick or a scheme. It is Rule 22 of the U.S. Senate. Everybody knew this. This is an existing rule. It is taught in Senate class when you do your orientation. It is not a surprise. Nobody sprung it on him.

In desperation, Cruz asked Harry Reid to set it up so that the final bill requires 60 votes to pass, which is sort of like asking your opponent in a snowball fight to hand you a snowball. Reid, unsurprisingly, denied the request. In addition, you'll note that even if Cruz's plan cleared the Senate, President Obama would then have to sign a bill that defunds his signature legislative accomplishment. And Obama, uhhh, isn't going to do that.

And so the defund effort is, at its essence, lunacy. Republicans will meet tomorrow and map out a plan on how to proceed, but barring something extraordinary, ObamaCare is not going to be defunded any time soon.