Is Speaker Boehner backing off Obamacare demands?

House GOP leaders are talking more about budget restraint and tax reform than defunding Obamacare, prompting worries in conservative ranks that Boehner's endgame may sell out their concerns.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio arrives at the Capitol on Wednesday, with the partial government shutdown in its second week.

Is the House Republican leadership backing away from its demand that big changes to Obamacare are the price of reopening the government and raising the nation’s debt ceiling?

That’s what some tea party conservatives are beginning to suspect. They’ve noticed rhetoric from House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and his allies has changed a bit in recent days. It’s focusing on the word “conversation” – as in, what the GOP wants is for President Obama to give in and talk to them. The GOP leadership is talking more about the general prospect of tax reform and budget restraint, as opposed to the Affordable Care Act in particular.

Now, a new op-ed from House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin is irritating some on the right due to what they believe is its apostasy. The piece repeats the request for negotiation and talks about the prospect for bipartisan entitlement reform. It does mention the need for a “complete rethinking of government’s approach to health care,” but only as a vague future goal.

“But right now, we need to find common ground. We need to open the federal government. We need to pay our bills today – and make sure we can pay our bills tomorrow. So let’s negotiate an agreement to make modest reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code,” writes Representative Ryan.

“Obamacare” does not appear in the piece. It contains no direct reference to the president’s signature health law or the law’s current implementation problems. And that has not gone unnoticed among those for whom Obamacare is the central issue of the current crisis.

“What is amazing about this op-ed is what it fails to mention. Amidst the garrulous piece on Medicare reform, Social Security, and tax policy, there is not one word about the very impetus for this so-called stalemate – Obamacare,” writes Daniel Horowitz at the right-leaning RedState site.

Of course, it’s possible that Ryan is just keeping quiet about Obamacare for the moment, given that polls show the public blames the GOP somewhat more than Democrats for the current situation. On Wednesday, Mr. Boehner reiterated the party's particular criticism of the health care plan, calling it "a rolling calamity" and "a trainwreck."

But tea party conservatives are worried that the leadership is selling them out – they see a developing endgame in which the government shutdown is linked to the debt limit to create a larger crisis, allowing House GOP leaders to switch to their preferred solution of a modest budget package hammered out in negotiations with the White House.

The well-connected Robert Costa of the right-leaning National Review says Wednesday that while tea party-types have wanted the current war to be about defunding Obamacare, the House leadership is more circumspect. Leadership members also want to defund the Affordable Health Care Act in theory but think a trade for entitlement reform makes more sense in the current divided government.

“Ryan oped, House Rs tell me, signals opening of leadership’s final move; but getting to 218 [votes in House] will be tough, may need adjustments/add-on,” tweeted Mr. Costa on Wednesday.

The central question this raises is whether Boehner will be able to convince enough of his most hard-line members to accept this approach. It might be possible – Boehner has won some “modest” credibility with the tea party caucus due to his willingness to accept their defund demand and take it as far as he has, according to Politico’s John Bresnahan and John Harris.

“Interviews with tea party-aligned House members and other hard-line conservatives reveal a modest if unmistakable rise in support for Boehner – a politician they have previously disdained and tried to unsuccessfully to evict from power,” Messrs. Bresnahan and Harris write.

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