The Defund Obamacare Movement Falls on Hard Times

The defunders try to drum up support on the road as potential allies say no sale.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, stands for a TV news interview on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, May 6, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Aug. 18, 2013, 3:20 a.m.

The GOP drive to de­fund Obama­care is leak­ing oil.

From the lead­ers of the GOP es­tab­lish­ment to usu­al tea-party al­lies, a grow­ing num­ber of Re­pub­lic­ans are split­ting with move­ment con­ser­vat­ives who are push­ing to shut down the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment if fund­ing is not cut off for Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law at the end of Septem­ber.

The grow­ing con­cern is that the tea-party act­iv­ists and a hand­ful of sen­at­ors, led by the troika of Mike Lee, R-Utah, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., are march­ing in­to battle without a plan for vic­tory short of Obama re­vers­ing him­self on his sig­na­ture do­mest­ic achieve­ment — an al­most un­ima­gin­able out­come.

“Next to im­possible,” said one tea-party fa­vor­ite, Sen. Ron John­son, R-Wis., last week.

Even Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, who has signed onto the de­fund­ing push, ques­tioned wheth­er it would ac­tu­ally work. “I may not be able to guar­an­tee vic­tory,” Paul told Sean Han­nity last week on Fox News.

The in­fight­ing has left Re­pub­lic­ans bat­tling each oth­er in­stead of the Demo­crats over in­tern­al polit­ic­al tac­tics head­ing in­to the next fisc­al fight.

“I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of,” Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Richard Burr of North Car­o­lina said late last month. “Listen, as long as Barack Obama is pres­id­ent, the Af­ford­able Care Act is go­ing to be law.”

Con­ser­vat­ive groups ac­cuse the GOP es­tab­lish­ment of ad­opt­ing a de­feat­ist at­ti­tude. “You can’t win if you don’t fight, and the Re­pub­lic­an Party — and the lead­er­ship in the party — has done noth­ing but cave, cave, and cave,” said Matt Hoskins, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, a tea-party-aligned group that sup­ports the de­fund­ing push.

Hoskins poin­ted par­tic­u­lar blame at Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, who has not joined in the de­fund­ing push or even taken a pub­lic po­s­i­tion. Mc­Con­nell is up for reelec­tion in 2014 and faces a new tea-party chal­lenger, Matt Bev­in. In a fun­drais­ing e-mail to sup­port­ers Fri­day with the sub­ject line “Mc­Con­nell Sur­renders to Re­id on Obama­care,” the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund said it was rais­ing money for a statewide cam­paign to make Mc­Con­nell “feel the heat.”

“This is­sue is a ma­jor test for Mitch Mc­Con­nell and he has failed con­ser­vat­ives time and time again,” Hoskins said in an in­ter­view.

In the Sen­ate, Lee, Cruz, and Ru­bio are try­ing to but­ton­hole col­leagues to pledge to op­pose keep­ing the gov­ern­ment run­ning past Sept. 30 un­less fund­ing for the health care law is cut off. Lee has re­peatedly called it the “last best chance” to stop the health care law.

But so far they have the sig­na­tures of only 13 sen­at­ors. “The only place that this ef­fort is con­tro­ver­sial is in­side the Belt­way,” said Bri­an Phil­lips, a Lee spokes­man. A total of 41 Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors would have to vow to block a gov­ern­ment fund­ing meas­ure to guar­an­tee suc­cess in the Sen­ate.

“Yeah, OK, it doesn’t look like we’re go­ing to get to 41 but there is a whole lot of time,” Phil­lips said. “We’re in the ring. We’ve got a full 12 rounds to go and we get to punch back.”

With mo­mentum stalled in Wash­ing­ton, pro­ponents of “de­fund or shut­down” know they must rally the base dur­ing the cur­rent Au­gust re­cess and are ramp­ing up pres­sure. “We need to ac­tiv­ate an­oth­er grass­roots army,” Cruz said in a taped mes­sage he re­leased earli­er this month. Her­it­age Ac­tion, the act­iv­ist arm of the Her­it­age Found­a­tion, has or­gan­ized a nine-city “De­fund Obama­care” town-hall tour, be­gin­ning Monday in Fay­etteville, Ark.

“This has al­ways been a strategy re­ly­ing on people go­ing home in Au­gust and listen­ing to con­stitu­ents,” said Mi­chael Need­ham, CEO of Her­it­age Ac­tion.

The act­iv­ists claim they have the mo­mentum, but so far, the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship in Wash­ing­ton isn’t feel­ing the pres­sure. House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor reached out to the con­ser­vat­ive Na­tion­al Re­view last week to pro­claim that “no one is ad­voc­at­ing a gov­ern­ment shut­down.”

“To get 60 votes in the Sen­ate, you need at least 14 Demo­crats to join Re­pub­lic­ans and pass a [meas­ure] that de­funds Obama­care,” Can­tor said. “Right now, I am not aware of a single Demo­crat in the Sen­ate who would join us. If and when de­fund­ing has 60 votes in the Sen­ate, we will ab­so­lutely de­liv­er more than 218 votes in the House.”

Bey­ond the town halls, Her­it­age Ac­tion re­cently re­leased polling to try to con­vince GOP lead­ers that they could win a de­fund­ing fight in the court of pub­lic opin­ion. The Her­it­age sur­vey, done in 10 com­pet­it­ive House dis­tricts, showed nearly 60 per­cent sup­port for shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment to slow the health care law. The poll ques­tion, however, didn’t use the word “shut­down” but in­stead asked about “a tem­por­ary slow­down in non­es­sen­tial fed­er­al gov­ern­ment op­er­a­tions.” A plur­al­ity of voters said they’d place most of the blame on con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, not Obama, if the gov­ern­ment shut down.

Rep. Adam Kin­zinger, R-Ill., a Can­tor ally, went so far as to sug­gest a gov­ern­ment shut­down over the health law could cost Re­pub­lic­ans the House ma­jor­ity.

The pos­sib­il­ity of a Re­pub­lic­an-pre­cip­it­ated shut­down does have Demo­crats lick­ing their polit­ic­al chops. “This is de­struct­ive not only for the coun­try and for health care but it’s also, I think, something that would boom­er­ang on them polit­ic­ally,” said Rep. Chris Van Hol­len, D-Md., a former chair­man of the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

Lo­gist­ic­ally, the de­fund­ing push has to be­gin in the GOP-con­trolled House, where the de­fund­ing back­ers hope that Re­pub­lic­ans will muscle through a meas­ure to fund the gov­ern­ment in­to Oc­to­ber with a pro­vi­sion pre­vent­ing any of the money from be­ing spent on the health care law. Then, they want the GOP minor­ity in the Sen­ate to fili­buster any spend­ing bill that would give funds to im­ple­ment the law.

“At that point,” Ted Cruz told the Daily Caller, “we simply have to con­tin­ue to stand to­geth­er and not blink.”

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