Republican Fight Brewing Over Threatened Government Shutdown
As Congress heads into its traditional August recess at the end of next week, a fight is brewing among Republican members of the House and Senate about how to handle the budget debate that Congress will face when it returns after Labor Day. On one side, you’ve got firebrands, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz and others, who are saying that the GOP should refuse to agree to any budget that doesn’t completely defund the Affordable Care Act. If you’re thinking you’ve heard that song before, you’d be right; by some counts, the Republican Party has tried to repeal or defund the President’s health care reform law at least 38 times over the past two and a half years. Each attempt has, of course, been little more than a political stunt because it was clear that any such bill that passed the House would never pass the Senate and, even if it did, would ultimately be vetoed by the President. Despite this, Cruz and others have jumped on the repeal/defund bandwagon yet again largely in response to the Administration’s decision to delay implementation of the employer mandate by at least a year, which they see as an opportunity for a renewed attack on the law.
While many Republican Senators have signed on to a letter being circulated by Cruz and allies such as Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul advocating the shutdown strategy, though, we’re also starting to hear murmurs of dissent from other Republicans, many of them legislators with impeccable records of fiscal conservatism, pointing out the foolishness of threatening to shutdown the government over an unachievable goal:
A brewing Republican versus Republican fight over whether to use a government funding measure to choke off Obamacare is splitting the party ahead of this fall’s budget battles.
A growing number of Republicans are rejecting calls from leading conservatives, including Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, to defund the president’s health care law in the resolution to keep the government running past Sept. 30. The rift exposes an emerging divide over how the GOP can best achieve its No. 1 goal — to repeal Obamacare — while highlighting the spreading fears that Republicans would lose a public relations war if the dispute leads to a government shutdown in the fall.
The debate is happening behind closed doors and over Senate lunches, as well as during a frank meeting Wednesday with House leaders in Speaker John Boehner’s suite where fresh concerns were aired about the party’s strategy. On Thursday, the dispute began to spill into public view, most notably when three Senate Republicans — including Minority Whip John Cornyn — withdrew their signatures from a conservative letter demanding defunding Obamacare as a condition for supporting the government funding measure.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) called the push to defund the law through the continuing resolution the “dumbest idea” he had ever heard.
“Defunding the Affordable Care Act is not achievable by shutting down the federal government,” Burr said. “At some point, you’re going to open the federal government back up, and Barack Obama is going to be president.”
With the fall spending fights nearing and the White House struggling to implement the health care law, conservatives say now is the time to fight and force Democrats to bend to their will. But funding the health care law is hardly the only disagreement. Senate Democrats and House Republicans are tens of billions of dollars apart on their government funding targets.
Nonetheless, Rubio, Lee and other conservative lawmakers have begun to make the case that if Republicans back a budget bill that includes funding for Obamacare, they essentially are supporting the law.
“They will choose to fund it and thereby, become part of the legislative process of Obamacare’s implementation, but I’m not going to,” Lee said Thursday.
Such comments have irked a number of Republicans, virtually all of whom have called for the law’s repeal.
“That’s not true because a good portion of it is mandatory spending, and the only way you get rid of mandatory spending if you want to defund Obamacare is 67 votes because you got to override a presidential veto,” said Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a fellow conservative. “So that’s not an accurate assessment.”
Coburn called the conservative effort a “failed strategy” since “backbones don’t hold long” after a government shuts down, and he said it’s a political loser.
“My feeling is if you want to make sure that the Democrats take control of the House, run that strategy,” Coburn said.
Similarly, Cornyn said he disagrees with the assessment that supporting a budget bill with Obamacare funding is the same as supporting the law.
“There’s no line item in there for Obamacare, so actually, you’re not,” Cornyn said. “But you essentially have to shut down the government in order to prevent them from doing it. We are not arguing about the goal about doing away with Obamacare, we’re just talking about the means to that end.”
Over on the House side, Deputy Majority Whip Tom Cole likened the whole exercise to a temper tantrum:
“Seems to me there’s appropriate ways to deal with the law, but shutting down the government to get your way over an unrelated piece of legislation is political equivalent of throwing a temper tantrum,” he said Wednesday on Fox News. “It’s just not helpful. And it is the sort of thing that creates a backlash and could cost the Republicans the majority in the House, which is after all the last line of defense against the president. And it could materially undercut the ability of the Republicans in the Senate to have the majority in 2014 which they have a decent chance to do.”
Cole made the same point to National Review in an article published Thursday.
“I don’t think you ought to try to blackmail the administration on a fight that they won politically in the House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court by threatening to shut down the government,” he said.
Cornyn, Coburn, Cole, and the other critics of the shutdown strategy are correct, of course. As long as Barack Obama is President, and barring the unlikely possibility that the GOP somehow was able to put together coalitions in both Houses of Congress big enough to override a veto, then the Affordable Care Act is not going to be repealed. More importantly, as Byron York points out this morning, “defunding” Obamacare is as much of a sheer fantasy as repealing it given the fact that much of the bill is funded by automatic expenditures that can’t simply be cut off as part of the normal budgeting process. The idea that it either can or should be placed on the table as a bargaining chip during budget negotiations is, quite honestly, absurd because its a condition that neither the President nor Congressional Democrats are ever going to agree to. Instead, they are likely to take Republican grandstanding on the issue of PPACA repeal and use it to their political advantage by claiming, correctly, that the GOP is holding the entire government hostage over a political issue that, at least for the moment, has been decided at both the legal level by the Supreme Court and at the ballot box by the results of the 2012 elections. Indeed, while Republicans will point to a recent poll showing that more Americans than ever support repeal of the health care reform law, it’s worth noting that this number only stands at 39%, hardly a functioning majority of any kind.
The truth, of course, Republicans like Cruz, Rubio, and Paul aren’t really engaging in this strategy because they think they can win in the end. As one Senate aid tells York, this is all about pleasing the base of the Republican Party:
So why the push? “We have to try,” says the Senate aide. “Having this fight will show the people who sent us here that we are a party of principle. And after we lose this fight, all of our guys are going to have an issue that we can run on and win.”
As Matt Lewis notes, though, the idea that this is the kind of battle that the GOP can win seems to be naive at best and foolish at worst:
This seems naive and potentially selfish. Naive, because the notion that Republicans could win such a PR battle in which the pros outweigh the cons seems to be premised on their ability to defy history. And selfish because even if this is just posturing. It means that a handful of individual Senators (joining Lee are several prominent senators like Rubio, Cruz, Paul, et al.) get to posture as the “real conservative fighters” — at the expense of their colleagues and the overall Republican “brand” (which could be further tarnished if things go south).
Added to that is the fact that the GOP has never seemed to been able to figure out how to “win” one of these battles with the President in a way that would make threatening to shutdown the entire government seem like a wise strategy. Without fail, every time Republicans have tried to execute on this threat they have ended up on the losing side when it comes to public opinion. There’s no reason to believe that things would turn out any differently this time around even when you take the continued unpopularity of the PPACA into account. Members like Coburn and Cole recognize this reality, and that’s likely the reason why they’ve decided to step up and speak out against a shutdown strategy this time around. If they know what’s good for them, the rest of the GOP should listen to them rather than taking the possibly more popular, but ultimately foolish, route that Senators Cruz, Rubio, and Paul seem to be advising. It’s a fight that Republicans cannot possibly win, and which they could end up paying a heavy price for when they inevitably lose.