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Reckoning for GOP, but not Obamacare

Three years ago, while riding a tea party wave to 2010 election victories, conservative Republicans promised a reckoning in Washington. They would bring the smaller government that Americans wanted, they said, and they would govern with the conservative principles that many in their party had forgotten. And oh yes, they would repeal Obamacare.

Now the reckoning has come. But it might not be the one the Tea Party expects.

This week, the U.S. Senate will consider a U.S. House spending bill passed Friday that would keep the government running for three months – but remove funding for the Affordable Care Act. The bill won’t pass the Democratic-led Senate, of course, and would be vetoed promptly by President Obama if it did. More likely: The Senate will strip out the defund-Obamacare part of that resolution and send it back to the House, giving Republicans there a short time to decide if they want to bring the government to a halt over a health care law they can’t defeat.

Most Republicans, especially those in the Senate, don’t want this. They understand it would be politically disastrous to be the party that shuts down the government over an unwinnable battle. “I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., earlier this year, and other Republicans took turns last week bluntly criticizing the idea. But for a small group of House Republicans who answer only to their gerrymandered districts back home, the battle is the one they promised voters who elected them. It’s principles over pragmatism. It is, they believe, a long time coming.

“This is what we said we were going to do, and this will be the first time in two years and nine months that we are going to vote on defunding on a must-pass legislation,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas said last week.

For now, congressional Democrats and the rest of America are mere spectators, waiting to see how far Republicans will let this intra-party game of chicken go. Will they allow the government to be shut down, which would disrupt services, potentially cost billions and threaten a still-fragile economy? Or will they wait and try the same defund-or-bust tactic with the upcoming debt ceiling debate, a strategy that might be even more economically catastrophic?

The saner alternative, as we’ve said in this space before, is for Republicans and Democrats to acknowledge that Obamacare accomplishes worthy goals but is complex, confusing and needs some repair. One recent example: A “family glitch” that insurance and health care analysts say will cost families thousands of dollars and leave a half-million children without coverage unless Congress makes some fixes to the ACA’s language.

Eventually, those kinds of repairs will happen. Americans may be wary of Obamacare, but most are firmly against shutting down government or defaulting on debt. Ultimately, enough Republicans will realize this, too. Because while fiery displays of principle might play well in town halls and campaign speeches, zealotry and threats are no way to govern a nation.

The troubling question: How much damage are they willing to do to their party – and their country – before that realization arrives?

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