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Republicans stage latest political theater

Eric Cantor tries to dump the effects of the shutdown on Democrats.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Eric Cantor tries to dump the effects of the shutdown on Democrats.

US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor(C) speaks at a healthcare presser on Capitol Hill October 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. Democrats and Republicans are still at a stalemate on funding appropriations for the federal government as the shut down goes into third day. (Photo by Brenden Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Republicans put on their lab coats, grabbed their stethoscopes and said it’s time to fund the National Institute of Health.

The government shutdown, however, must continue.

The reason: a fight over an Obamacare rule that’s been largely sidelined as an issue in the last 48 hours.

Thursday’s press conference was the latest political theater on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are increasingly focused on battling Democrats over the effects of the shutdown rather than the fight that precipitated it.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor was asked at the event why, if government services like the NIH’s are so vital, he shouldn’t just fund the government with a clean spending bill, an idea now backed by 18 House Republicans.

“I think the Speaker and I have both said that the Republican position is we believe we should fund this government, but we also believe that there should not be any special treatment for anyone,” Cantor said. “That is why we believe the right solution to that is to provide for a delay of the individual mandate under the health care law.”

He added, “no way in the world should members of Congress get special treatment under that law either,” referring to House demands to cut health care benefits for federal lawmakers and staff.

Despite Cantor’s reminder that disagreements over health care reform are the driving force behind the standoff, the issue has largely been neutralized since Tuesday as Republicans have shifted to a discussion of how to mitigate the damage caused by the shutdown. Members have indicated that they’re unsure of their demands given that leadership’s last request before the shutdown, repeated by Cantor on Thursday, was simply for the White House and Senate leaders to negotiate at all.

Both Republicans and Democrats have highlighted the NIH, and specifically its suspension of clinical trials for children suffering from life threatening illness, as a leading of the shutdown’s damaging effects. House Republicans have proposed a bill to fund it temporarily, but Senate Democrats and the White House oppose the measure, saying the House must fund the government entirely rather than reconstitute it piece by piece.

Congressman Andy Harris, an anesthesiologist, carried a stethoscope around his neck as he said “we should make sure that every child, each and every one who has cancer can be taken care of by the world’s best at  the NIH.”

Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, who publicly opposed shutting down the government over Obamacare in August, held back tears as she described the emotional toll on families denied care.

“If you’ve ever seen the look on a parents face when they’re told that their child has cancer and then you take their hope away, the moment that they know they can fight for it they will,” Ellmers said.

Republicans pilloried Majority Leader Harry Reid, a picture of whom was featured at Thursday’s press conference, for telling a CNN reporter the day before that he wouldn’t “pick and choose” which features of government to revive.

Ellmers urged Reid to “give hope back to these families.”

“I tell you Senator Reid, you will not sleep until that happens,” she said.