On Tuesday morning, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) held a meeting to brief House GOP members on his new plan to stave off a US government default and end the government shutdown. The proposed package would include a two-year delay of the Affordable Care Act’s tax on medical devices, eliminate the health insurance employer subsidy for members of Congress, and require income verification for people who qualify for federal subsidies under Obamacare. It would also prohibit the Department of the Treasury from taking “extraordinary measures” to postpone a debt crisis. The measure would fund the government until mid-January and raise the debt ceiling until early February.
Immediately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Boehner’s plan would be DOA if it ever reaches the Senate. And initial reports noted that it did not have the full backing of Boehner’s caucus—partly because tea partiers were upset that this plan would still allow employer subsidies for the health insurance of congressional staffers. Many members who left the meeting declined to say how they’d vote. Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) pried open an elevator door to escape reporters hurling questions at him. But several Republican legislators said there was another provision they wanted included in the legislation: a so-called “conscience clause” that would exempt employers (citing religious objections) from having to provide coverage for birth control as part of the health care plans they offer employees. This idea has been on the Republican wish list for years—Obamacare already has this sort of exemption for churches, mosques, and other places of worship—and with Washington in full-on crisis mode, GOPers are looking to exploit current circumstances to win this long-running fight.
“There are a lot of people, and I’m one of those, who are really pushing for a conscience clause to be included,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a former consultant and End-Times novelist who was elected last fall. “They want to have some principle that they could go home and say, ‘we fought for this, and we got this.'”
Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.), who came out of the meeting undecided on the Boehner proposal (“We were in there for two hours and I don’t think I know” what’s in the package), said he’d “love to see” a conscience clause added to the legislation. Asked if he could support a final bill that didn’t include such a measure, Long paused: “I wanna wait and see what the final thing looks like.” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an influential leader among House conservatives and the chair of the Republican Study Committee, and Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) each said that the birth control provision was among the extra items being discussed by his colleagues during Boehner’s latest last-ditch effort. “That’s something that’s very important,” Jordan remarked.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) noted that he was supportive of the idea—he specifically cited the Catholic charitable organization Little Sisters of the Poor—but he discounted the odds: “That’s not an issue that would cause it to succeed or fail in the conference and the president or the majority leader in the Senate have not mentioned it as a possibility.” Yet given the current House GOP chaos, there’s no telling what lines the die-hard tea partiers will be drawing as default nears. Many of them are still clinging to their anti-Obamacare crusade—which means Boehner may still be far from crafting a plan that can win support in the House, let alone the Senate.