As the debate over reopening government and avoiding default drifts further away from Obamacare, some who advocated loudest for the plan to force Obamacare concessions on Democrats and the White House may start to feel repercussions.
“The Senate is a small enough body where over a relatively short period of time, you develop a presence and a reputation based on the actions that you take,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. “That can have an effect positively or otherwise on what you can do later on. When we’re elected, we’re known for what we were. When you serve in the Senate you’re known for what you are.”
While lawmakers are reluctant to openly snipe at Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, and their cohorts in the House, the strategy many say had no endgame has left a bitter taste behind.
“My personal view is that we got in a fight we couldn’t win, and in the minority that’s not a good place to be,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “You need to pick your battles, and you need to pick your battles with the president in a way that you have a chance to achieve your goal.”
Even senators aligned with the tea party have harsh words for the plan. “To me this confirms what my message is, that this place is utterly broken and dysfunctional,” said Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Blunt suggested that the impact may dissipate over time, and certainly before the next election. “I don’t know at this point it has a lot of real long-term impact,” he said.
But polls show the shutdown is taking a toll on Cruz and Lee. Cruz’s net favorability plummeted 16 points since June, according to a recent Gallup poll. Roughly 36 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the junior senator from Texas, while 26 percent have a favorable view, Gallup reported. A new poll out from Brigham Young University shows Lee’s favorability down 10 points since June. Voters now see him unfavorably, 51 percent to 40 percent, according to the poll.
Asked whether Lee should hold to his principles in the government shutdown or compromise on the Affordable Care Act, 57 percent said he should be more willing to compromise, while 43 percent prefer he stick to his principles.
Still, Cruz stands behind his strategy, convinced it’s a winner, even as the debt-limit debate begins to come to the fore. “Obamacare remains Senator Cruz’s top focus,” said Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier. “We understand that our debt is unpopular, but Obamacare is unpopular too. If we stop Obamacare, we’ll have more jobs and decrease the debt. It’s a win-win.”
Lee also remains committed to the plan, and maintains that there has not particularly been pushback from fellow Republicans. “Republicans are in the driver’s seat now,” said Lee’s communications director, Brian Phillips.
According to Phillips, the rocky first couple weeks of the ACA’s rollout support the strategy. “It makes more sense for Republicans to fight against Obamacare now. It’s no longer conjecture about the ill effects of the law.”
“Senator Lee is going to let other people worry about poll numbers,” Phillips said, in reference to the BYU findings. “He only worries about the people calling into the office, who are overwhelmingly in favor of what he’s doing.”
For now, outside groups remain supportive of Cruz and Lee’s strategy. Heritage Action released a statement Thursday reaffirming its commitment to fighting Obamacare through the ongoing fiscal battles. “We do not support clean debt ceiling increases, but because Heritage Action is committed to giving House Leadership the flexibility they need to refocus the debate on Obamacare we will not key vote against the reported proposal,” CEO Michael Needham wrote.
Whether Cruz, Lee, and others have done long-term damage to their relationships with fellow Republicans is unclear, but when GOP lawmakers are asked, they often point out two things: one, that relationships matter, and two, that you can’t rule out working together again someday.
“I’ve been in one legislature or another for 34 years, either in the state or in Congress, and most all you can do is based on your accumulated reputation and your willingness to work with other people,” Isakson said. “I’ve always tried to be one that realized even a broken clock is right twice every 24 hours, so don’t ever rule anybody out.”