Republican Fight Brewing Over Threatened Government Shutdown

Republicans on Capitol Hill are openly disagreeing with a proposed strategy to threaten a government shutdown if Obamacare isn't repealed.

Elephants Fighting

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.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Deficit and Debt, Healthcare Policy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Gromitt Gunn says:

    “Oh, no, Senator Cruz, please please please don’t throw me in that briar patch” – Congressman Br’er Rabbit (D-Everywhere)

  2. Franklin says:

    I’m just shocked that Tom Coburn is right about something.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    “…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…”

    Absurd and Republican…two words that go together like Cold and Beer….Cuff and Link…Frick and Frack.
    I’ll ask the same question that I asked Jenos (he/she couldn’t formulate a logical response):
    If Republicans are so confident that Obamacare is going to be a colosall failure…why work so damned hard to sabotage it and risk paying a heavy price…as Doug points out above…when they could just sit back and watch it fail. You could respond with something stupid…like it’s a moral obligation to head it off before it does any real damage…but coming from the party that is willing to burn down the world economy for no real reason…that claim simply doesn’t hold water. And the status quo is completely unsustainable.

    The truth…it seems to me and others…is that Republicans are scared f’ing stiff that Obamacare is going to work…and all indications to date are that it will. After 38 attempts at getting rid of it…they are going to have a hard time explaining why they were against something that actually helps.

  4. steve s says:

    How long until they transition to saying “This was really romneycare–our idea!”

  5. steve s says:

    They’re actually going to campaign to tell young people not to sign up for health insurance. The Party of Stupid.

  6. MikeSJ says:

    If you assume Senators Cruz or Rubio or Paul care about the GOP or the country this would be a poor strategy to follow. They do not.

    This will maximize their funding from the base of the party…so what’s not to like?

    Whenever you are perplexed by what these guys are thinking – simply ask yourself what would a grifter do to line their pockets?

    Once you answer that you can easily understand what these characters are up to.

  7. al-Ameda says:

    Gee, all of this seems to familiar, why?

    Republicans spent 8 years trying to bring down Democratic President Bill Clinton and ultimately they impeached him, and along the way they actually shut down the government.

    Republicans have now spent about 5 years trying to bring down Democratic President Barack Obama. A majority of Republicans do not believe he is a legitimate president, they used the debt limit to force a downgrade in the rating of our Treasury debt, and now they’re threatening to shut down the government over a law they do not like.

    Republicans are to responsible governance as Chevy Suburbans are to fuel economy.

  8. Tillman says:

    A growing number of Republicans are rejecting calls from leading conservatives [emphasis mine], 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.

    It’s BS like this that keeps me from reading Politico. These three are recently elected. They are “leading” conservatives in the shallowest of senses.

  9. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Tillman: Substitute loudest for leading.

  10. Woody says:

    The problem with brinksmanship is that it becomes less effective every time it is used.

    The 1 October implementation of the ACA, the debt ceiling, the yearly budget: the Republican Right will demand shutdown-level radical maneuvers by their conservative politicians. The fact that this strategy has repeatedly failed with the general public is not really a factor, because their preferred media has for twenty years told them that the non-Murdoch media is always liberal (thus reinforcing their choice of Fox et al), and always lies to keep conservatives down.

    To the majority of Americans who do not get their news from News Corp, though, the willingness to wreak destruction over every. single. thing has become too obvious to be ignored or explained away as merely partisan politics.

    These decisions have real effects on actual people. Considering the amount of risk American families have taken on in the last forty years, it’s not out of line to ask for some stability.

  11. stonetools says:

    Please proceed, Senators.

  12. HarvardLaw92 says:

    LOL, the GOP Civil War continues unabated. These people are like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

  13. Liberal Capitalist says:

    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.

    This is it.

    Are they Republicans… or is it the GOP and (or vs) the new TEA ?

    Is it one party, or is it two?

    So beings the Clone Wars.

  14. PJ says:

    Have they given up their government run health care yet?

  15. Caj says:

    The Republican Party is an embarrassment to the country! They have no desire to see the country prosper. Whatever President Obama is for they are against it’s that simple. That’s no way to run a country when so much more could and should be done. It really is time for the people to throw these waste of space Republicans out of office in 2014! Nothing is getting done because they don’t want anything to get done. It’s like President Obama is running again in 2016 & they are trying their best to give people a reason not to vote for him! Stupid is as stupid does!

  16. C. Clavin says:

    @ PJ…
    I the GOP it’s words not actions.
    For instance…fiscal hawks throwing money at Big Ag…and as discussed yesterday…defense contractors.

  17. C. Clavin says:

    This “Civil War” is fun…given the GOP is all about lock-step adherence to party dogma.

  18. Mike says:

    I thought the goal was to win elections. Exactly how many elections does the GOP want to lose? This strategy will guarantee at least the next one.

  19. Latino_in_Boston says:

    I’m actually worried that the Republicans might do some real damage before they are done. I mean, they already have, but this could really top it all.

    Any hostage situation can always end in disaster, I just hope we’re lucky to avoid it this time.

  20. stonetools says:


    I thought the goal was to win elections. Exactly how many elections does the GOP want to lose? This strategy will guarantee at least the next one.

    It’s about winning PRIMARY elections. Such brinksmanship is great for that. And for many Republicans in safe seats, the primary election is the real election.
    Sucks for Republicans in unsafe districts, though, as well as those running for statewide office outside the South, as well as for the national Republican brand.

  21. Tillman says:

    @C. Clavin: In the end, despite the “civil war” going on, they’ll vote lockstep against any Democratic initiative, so this isn’t so much a “popcorn flick” level of entertainment as “driving slowly by a horrible wreck.”

  22. Cal American says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Unfortunately they are heavily armed, cause lots of collateral damage, and don’t seem to care about who gets hurt as long as they make their statement and collect their silver for doing it. Hmmm, who or what does that remind me of?

  23. mantis says:

    There’s a reason for all of this. They are afraid. They know Obamacare is going to work.

  24. Tyrell says:

    Government shut down? That is one way to get all of the spying and phone eavesdropping stopped. The agency I fear the most is the Federal Tricycle Authority. National Hot Dog Regulatory Agency also costs me sleep.

  25. Rob in CT says:

    These a*holes, they always get away.

  26. Tillman says:

    @mantis: They don’t know Obamacare will work. They’re afraid it will. Which is worse because it means they don’t have strength in their own convictions.

    I don’t buy Jenos’s argument that conservatives vehemently oppose the implementation of Obamacare in order to spare suffering from more people down the road. A conservative response would be to mitigate the law’s flaws through legislation. At least, a conservative response that still respected the institutions of government.

  27. Press Watch says:

    The GOP is soooo stuuupid
    You can’t fix stuuuupid!

  28. SC_Birdflyte says:

    It must be a week for nostalgia with the GOP. Brings back memories of late 1995.

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