In a Congress defined by the actions of members at the extremes, Sen. Susan Collins has staked out a position that falls firmly in the mainstream of American public opinion.
Maine’s Republican senator said Friday it’s a mistake to risk a federal government shutdown over attempts by Republicans in Congress to deprive President Barack Obama’s signature health care law of funding.
“We have an obligation to govern in Washington, and it would create chaos if government were to shut down,” Collins told reporters after landing at Bangor International Airport following a week in Washington, D.C.
Collins’ statement puts her at odds with members of her own party in the U.S. House, which voted 230-189 on Friday to pass a resolution providing funds for federal agencies to continue operations after the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year but without funds needed to implement Obamacare.
But the senator’s position appears to be one shared by most Americans. And Collins is no supporter of Obamacare, a law that continues to be unpopular among the public.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found support for the health care law among 42 percent of respondents, while 52 percent opposed it. That’s consistent with a long-term tracking poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation that finds the law has rarely attracted more favorable than unfavorable views. In August, 42 percent of respondents held unfavorable views of the law, while 37 percent favored it.
While the law isn’t popular, Americans firmly oppose attempts to cut off its funding when the consequence could be a government shutdown and a national debt default (next month’s Washington showdown). A CNBC poll released Monday found 59 percent of respondents opposed defunding Obamacare if it meant shutting down the federal government. Some 19 percent supported that approach.
Collins is right that Congress’ responsibility is to govern, and governing — regardless of one’s opinion on the Affordable Care Act — does not mean putting the government’s core operations at risk for the singular purpose of undermining a law congressional Republicans oppose.
Collins is also taking a realistic view of the matter, recognizing that the government funding approach supported by House Republicans is a nonstarter when the Senate is controlled by Democrats and the White House is occupied by the man whose legacy will be defined by the health care law.
“The fact is that strategy is not going to be successful,” Collins told McClatchy last week. “The president’s never going to say, ‘OK, I’ll sign a repeal measure.’”
She’s also taking a view that, if acted upon, could spare her party from political damage. Last week, a CNN poll found Americans are more likely to blame Republicans in Congress than Obama or Democrats if the federal government shuts down. According to CNN, a third of respondents would blame the president, while 51 percent would consider congressional Republicans responsible.
Presuming this shutdown battle (and the next) passes and Obamacare funding stays intact, the debate over defunding the law is not going away. According to McClatchy, Collins herself suggested Republicans pursue repealing or defunding the law in a way “that did not involve a potential shutdown of government.”
But if Congress’ job is to govern, it’s worth considering what that means after the specter of a shutdown no longer looms large. In August, Kaiser’s health care tracking poll found 57 percent of respondents opposed defunding Obamacare irrespective of the threat of a government shutdown. (CNBC’s more recent poll still found more opposed in general to defunding the law, 44 percent to 38 percent.)
In Kaiser’s poll, most who opposed defunding Obamacare, 69 percent, thought “using the budget process to stop a law is not the way government should work.”
Indeed, in the minds of many, it’s still not governing to continue attempting to defund or repeal a law that has passed Congress and been affirmed by the Supreme Court.
Of course, by the time Congress gets around to that question, the Affordable Care Act’s provisions will have kicked off in a big way, and Americans will be signing up for private insurance through newly deployed online marketplaces or for public insurance through some states’ expanded Medicaid programs. Federal subsidies, by then, could even be flowing, making health insurance affordable to those who previously had no way of affording quality coverage.
Perhaps, by then, public opinion will have shifted in terms of Americans’ thoughts about the law itself.