Push for a Government Shutdown Over Obamacare Falls on Hard Times

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has not joined the defunding effort or taken a public position. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has not joined the defunding effort or taken a public position. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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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