The Man Behind the Campaign to Defund Obamacare

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 03: U.S. Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) talks to a reporter while on his way to the House Chamber for a vote October 3, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The House has passed the Pay Our Guard and Reserve spending bill with a vote of 265 to 160.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
Nov. 5, 2013, 4:09 p.m.

Tom Graves was a man ahead of his time.

Long be­fore Ted Cruz was or­ches­trat­ing 21-hour hom­il­ies on the Sen­ate floor, Graves, a Re­pub­lic­an con­gress­man from Geor­gia, was wa­ging a lonely — and largely an­onym­ous — cam­paign to de­fund the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Graves won a June 2010 spe­cial elec­tion that brought him to Wash­ing­ton amid a dead le­gis­lat­ive sum­mer lead­ing up to midterm elec­tions. It was then that the former Geor­gia state rep­res­ent­at­ive saw an op­por­tun­ity to in­flu­ence the de­bate over Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­cently passed health care law. And those ef­forts forever changed his path in Con­gress.

Hav­ing run in the months im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing Obama­care’s pas­sage, Graves felt a unique con­nec­tion to the elect­or­ate and its dis­ap­prov­al of the new law. But he saw no Re­pub­lic­an pro­pos­al to stop the gov­ern­ment from pay­ing for it. In­tent on filling this le­gis­lat­ive “va­cu­um,” Graves in Ju­ly 2010 in­tro­duced the De­fund Obama­care Act — the very first bill he au­thored in Con­gress, and one he would in­tro­duce in each new ses­sion.

Three years later, as Re­pub­lic­ans grappled with a stalled ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess and on­go­ing anxi­ety over fin­an­cing the law, the phone rang in Graves’s con­gres­sion­al of­fice. It was a staffer in Cruz’s of­fice. Cruz wanted to be­come the Sen­ate co­spon­sor of Graves’s de­fund bill, the staffer said. Would the Geor­gia con­gress­man be in­ter­ested in team­ing with the sen­at­or from Texas?

The rest, as they say, is his­tory.

Graves helped rally House Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing the lead­er­ship, around a strategy of de­fund­ing and delay­ing Obama­care in ex­change for fund­ing the rest of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. This strategy ul­ti­mately failed, as evid­enced by a 16-day gov­ern­ment shut­down that di­ver­ted at­ten­tion away from Obama­care’s dis­astrous rol­lout and left con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans guilty in the court of pub­lic opin­ion.

But for Graves, the anti-Obama­care push had an­oth­er un­in­ten­ded con­sequence. It el­ev­ated him to an au­thor­it­at­ive po­s­i­tion with­in the House GOP that, less than a year earli­er, ap­peared ut­terly im­prob­able.

“When we began hear­ing about “˜The Graves Plan’ and “˜The Graves Bill’ “¦ that’s when I star­ted re­cog­niz­ing that in­di­vidu­als were look­ing to me to provide what little lead­er­ship I could,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

It’s not that Graves isn’t com­fort­able in this star­ring role; it’s that he had already au­di­tioned for the part and thought he had won it, only to have it un­ce­re­mo­ni­ously snatched away.

Graves spent his first full term as the right-hand man to his friend, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who was then chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee. Graves, who years earli­er had at­ten­ded an RSC meet­ing as a guest and grew wide-eyed watch­ing his “her­oes” de­lib­er­ate, had im­me­di­ately joined the group after be­ing elec­ted. After the midterm elec­tions ushered in a GOP ma­jor­ity, Graves dug in­to the RSC trenches, con­vinced that con­ser­vat­ives should hold lead­er­ship ac­count­able to ex­ecute the “Pledge to Amer­ica” they made in 2010.

RSC of­fi­cials soon viewed Graves as heir ap­par­ent to Jordan, and they even­tu­ally asked him to pur­sue the po­s­i­tion. Graves ob­liged, and when the time came for can­did­ates to in­ter­view, the young Geor­gi­an dazzled the “founders,” a pan­el of former RSC chair­men tasked with en­dors­ing a can­did­ate. That group also met with an­oth­er im­press­ive con­tender, Rep. Steve Scal­ise, R-La., be­fore an­noun­cing a un­an­im­ous en­dorse­ment of Graves.

But Scal­ise — and House GOP lead­er­ship, ac­cord­ing to many sources fa­mil­i­ar with the situ­ation — had dif­fer­ent ideas. Scal­ise said he pos­sessed a more achiev­able vis­ion for the RSC, and he began cir­cu­lat­ing a pe­ti­tion to force a run­off elec­tion. Lead­er­ship en­cour­aged this chal­lenge, and, after a series of clashes with Jordan dur­ing the 112th Con­gress, it feared that Graves’s ideo­lo­gic­al pur­ity would en­cour­age con­tin­ued con­flict.

When the dust settled, Scal­ise scored a nar­row vic­tory over Graves. Al­lies of the Geor­gia law­maker were in­censed, con­vinced that lead­er­ship had “fixed” the elec­tion to en­sure a less com­bat­ive chair­man would lead the caucus of 170-some Re­pub­lic­ans. Graves, for his part, was stung by the loss. Speak­er John Boehner’s team had draf­ted him to help write the Pledge to Amer­ica just a few years earli­er. Now, Graves felt he was be­ing pun­ished for push­ing them to fol­low through.

“I don’t know their motives,” Graves said, re­flect­ing on lead­er­ship’s role in the RSC race. With a shrug, he ad­ded: “I’m one that pushes pretty hard. So per­haps they didn’t want some­body in that role who pushes so hard.”

For a time, Graves struggled with the de­feat. Then his phone rang. It was out­go­ing Rep. Mike Pence, the former RSC chair­man and newly elec­ted gov­ernor of In­di­ana who had been lob­by­ing on Graves’s be­half.

“Tom, I know you’re feel­ing a sting,” Pence said. “But I want you to know that re­gard­less of what your title is in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., you are still a con­ser­vat­ive voice, and you will still be a con­ser­vat­ive lead­er. Al­ways re­mem­ber that.”

Graves re­boun­ded in a hurry. He called Scal­ise and offered his ser­vices “without get­ting in the way” of the new chair­man. Be­fore long, Graves, a House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee mem­ber, had carved out an im­port­ant new role in the RSC: un­of­fi­cial li­ais­on between con­ser­vat­ives and lead­er­ship on Ap­pro­pri­ations.

The role was un­glam­or­ous but es­sen­tial. Graves began work­ing closely with Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­man Hal Ro­gers, R-Ky., an old-school ally of Boehner’s, to iron out ideo­lo­gic­al wrinkles that had of­ten slowed the pro­cess. Graves would brief RSC meet­ings on de­vel­op­ments from the com­mit­tee and bring spe­cif­ic ideas and con­cerns to Ro­gers, al­low­ing the “un­likely duo” to ad­dress po­ten­tial stick­ing points early and keep Re­pub­lic­ans on the same page.

“Tom was a crit­ic­al part of the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess,” said one seni­or GOP aide. “Con­ser­vat­ives saw him as their go-to guy.”

Graves’s prox­im­ity to Ap­pro­pri­ations made him in­dis­pens­able to con­ser­vat­ives; it also made him aware that GOP ef­forts to de­fund Obama­care through “reg­u­lar or­der” were fail­ing. The Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee had passed only four of 12 bills as of Ju­ly, and Graves, look­ing at the cal­en­dar, knew that something drastic was needed if Re­pub­lic­ans were to avoid pay­ing for Obama­care in a short-term fund­ing meas­ure. His solu­tion: Delay and de­fund Obama­care for one year, while fund­ing the rest of the gov­ern­ment for that same peri­od of time.

When Cruz called in Ju­ly, then, it was a no-brain­er. Graves re­in­tro­duced his le­gis­la­tion in con­cert with Cruz, and over the next sev­er­al months, thanks to the Tex­an’s grass­roots army, Graves be­came a con­ser­vat­ive cult hero, ree­m­er­ging in­to the spot­light he had sur­rendered after los­ing the RSC race.

When House Re­pub­lic­ans went home in Au­gust, con­stitu­ents pel­ted them with con­cerns about Obama­care, and ques­tions about how to de­feat it. They had no co­ordin­ated an­swer; GOP lead­er­ship had only talked about delay­ing the in­di­vidu­al man­date. Once again, there was a va­cu­um. And once again, Graves at­temp­ted to fill it. As Au­gust wore on, Graves co­ordin­ated with scores of col­leagues via email and con­fer­ence calls, and by month’s end Re­pub­lic­ans were ex­plain­ing the “Graves Plan” to their con­stitu­ents.

House Re­pub­lic­ans didn’t know what lead­er­ship’s strategy would be when they re­turned to Wash­ing­ton. But they knew this much: If it didn’t meet the Graves threshold, they would hold out for something that did.

Ul­ti­mately, con­ser­vat­ives lost the battle to de­fund Obama­care. But the war rages on for Graves, who swears in his South­ern drawl that the fight has just be­gun.

Bey­ond de­fund­ing Obama­care, though, it’s un­clear what comes next for Graves. The law­maker who in the span of one year emerged, re­ceded, then ree­m­erged as a con­ser­vat­ive lead­er is con­spicu­ously coy about what va­cu­um he’ll fill next.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Graves said, a slow smile creep­ing across his face. “My plan is just to be avail­able when a cause arises.”

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