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Shutdown showdown letdown

Effort to defund Obamacare while funding the government is losing traction among most Senate Republicans

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell returns to his office after speaking on the Senate floor. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Shutdown showdown letdown

WASHINGTON—The Senate showdown over funding Obamacare and a government shutdown will occur without support from the body’s top Republican.

After the House passed legislation last week to keep the government open through Dec. 15 only if the healthcare law is not funded, conservative groups such as the Senate Conservative Fund called on Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to lead the charge in the Senate.

McConnell on Tuesday morning took to the Senate floor and announced he would not participate in a strategy, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to prevent Senate Democrats from detaching the Obamacare defunding measure from the larger government-funding bill.

“I just don’t happen to think filibustering a bill that defunds Obamacare is the best route to defunding Obamacare,” McConnell said. “All it does is shut down the government and keep Obamacare funded. And none of us want that.”

With the majority of Senate Republicans expected to side with McConnell, that leaves Cruz with only a handful of allies in his effort to use the need to approve a government funding measure before the Sept. 30 deadline as leverage for killing the controversial healthcare law. And in the Byzantine world of Senate procedure, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., already has moved this week to cut Cruz’s options. Reid will strip the Obamacare provision from the larger House bill, set up passage using a simple 51-vote majority (instead of a 60-vote threshold), and make it impossible for Cruz to filibuster the bill by limiting the debate to 30 hours.

“Filibusters stop people from voting and we are going to vote,” Reid said. “No one can stop that.”

Cruz on Monday asked the Senate to make any effort to purge the measure of the provision defunding Obamacare subject to a 60-vote minimum. Republicans hold just 45 seats in the Senate, and Reid objected to Cruz’s request. Cruz then blamed Reid and the Democrats for any future government shutdown.

“No one on this side of the aisle wants a government shutdown,” Cruz said. “Five minutes ago the Senate could have avoided a government shutdown … but unfortunately the majority leader chose to object and say no. … Why? Because he supports the law called Obamacare."

Regardless of the Senate outcome, the move by the House to tie Obamacare to the federal funding bill was a victory for such conservative lobbying groups as the Senate Conservative Fund and Heritage Action. It showed they have growing clout in some quarters of Capitol Hill one year after the 2012 election defeats. Heritage Action, the political arm of The Heritage Foundation, hosted a nine-city tour this summer pushing the very strategy employed in last weeks’ House vote. Now those groups are hoping that grassroots angst and anger over Obamacare will begin to influence senators like it did House members.

“This is a powerful development for the cause of freedom, showing that our representatives are listening to the concerns of the American people about this unworkable, unfair, and unpopular healthcare law,” Jim DeMint, Heritage president and a former senator from South Carolina, said after last week’s House vote.

But so far this week it seems most Republican senators are not responding to the conservative groups’ calls to fix their bayonets and charge. To some senators and their staffers, the drama on Capitol Hill over funding the government while defunding Obamacare will also serve to increase funds elsewhere: the conservative groups’ coffers. The fight’s publicity is expanding the email lists of supporters for these groups. And Republican outsiders likely feel bold enough to attack Republican insiders with friendly fire thanks to surveys such as the Pew Research Center’s recent findings that more than 70 percent of Tea Party Republicans disapprove of the job being done by GOP leaders.

The ire has found its epicenter in Obamacare, which goes live on Oct. 1. Conservatives are blaming “wishy-washy” Republicans for making empty promises to stop the new healthcare program despite protests from top Republicans that there is little of significance they can do with Democrats controlling the Senate and occupying the White House.

“I’d like for them to stop thinking about their own reelections for five minutes,” ForAmerica’s Brent Bozell said about Republican lawmakers at a recent Atlanta rally.

But it will be hard for lawmakers to ignore elections when conservative groups are campaigning against them. Such groups held town halls this summer displaying cardboard cutouts of lawmakers who declined to attend, held a defunding Obamacare rally outside Speaker of the House John Boehner’s Ohio headquarters, and set up a website seeking challengers to moderate Republicans.

The success of these groups and new lawmakers like Cruz has upset some veteran Hill politicians and their staffers. When Cruz, in the days leading up to last week’s House vote, admitted Republicans didn’t have the votes to succeed in the Senate, lawmakers protested he was punting on a strategy he spent all summer propping up. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., sent out this tweet that he later deleted: “so far Sen Rs are good at getting Facebook likes, and town halls, not much else. Do something.”

On Friday, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., decried the House vote to combine defunding Obamacare with the government funding measure.

“We can't be going off on these false missions that Ted Cruz wants us to go on," he said.

Republicans who oppose Cruz’s strategy to risk a government shutdown over Obamacare argue that President Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Senate will never gut what they consider their signature accomplishment.

Reid confirmed as much this week when he said, “The simple fact remains: Obamacare is the law of the land, and it will remain the law of the land as long as Barack Obama is president of the United States and as long as I am the Senate majority leader.”

Cruz’s Republican critics also are skeptical that the media will go along with his argument that Democrats are to blame for any shutdown by moving to protect dollars for Obamacare. They argue, in fact, that it is distracting the media and the public from Obama’s own scandals, including waffling over strikes against Syria for the use of chemical weapons.

In an opinion piece published Monday night, the conservative op-ed board for The Wall Street Journal called the Cruz plan an “implausible defunding gambit.”

“The only real way to repeal the law is to win elections,” the op-ed board wrote.

Indeed, even if Obamacare is defunded in this bill, many of its elements would proceed. Those include the individual mandate, health insurance exchanges, and subsidies.

Regardless of how the government shutdown showdown plays out, this volatility between Tea Party Republicans and establishment Republicans likely will continue with the next fiscal debate. The government will hit its borrowing limit sometime in October, forcing lawmakers into another give-and-take over the nation’s debt and the size of the government’s spending.

Already House Republicans have had strategy sessions to consider agreeing to an increase in the government’s borrowing limit in exchange for a series of objectives, including a one-year delay of Obamacare. With the healthcare law on the table for this next set of negotiations, it is clear where many Republicans think the current defund Obamacare push—the one now before the Senate—will end up.

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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