Senate Republicans Fumbling to Find Strategy on Defunding Obamacare

"Let's delay Obamacare mandates for families right now, " Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "Let's delay Obamacare mandates for families right now, " Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. Timothy D. Easley/AP

If Senate Republican leaders have devised a strategy for how to launch their latest assault on the Affordable Care Act, it does not appear to have been communicated to the rank and file, who have yet to coalesce around a clear plan of attack.

Many Republican senators Thursday agreed the goal was to maximize Republican leverage but seemed undecided on whether the current battle over funding the government, the upcoming fight over raising the debt ceiling, or some other vehicle -- like the energy-efficiency bill on the floor -- was the best way to exert that power.

"We are all in favor of all the above," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. "Anything we can do to prevent it from being implemented."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered an Obamacare amendment to the energy bill under Senate consideration this week. The measure would delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate and codify the administration's one-year delay on employer insurance requirements. The House passed a one-year individual-mandate delay earlier in the summer, but is still wrestling with defunding Obamacare.

"Let's delay Obamacare mandates for families right now, just like the White House did for businesses, while there's still time to do it, and then let's work together, Democrats and Republicans, to repeal the law for good," McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday.

But on Thursday, few rank-and-file Republican senators were even talking about what was happening on the Senate floor. Rather, many were focused on what the House might send over, whether the continuing resolution to fund the government was the most appropriate vehicle to address the health care law, and whether efforts to defund the law should give way to growing momentum to delay it instead.

"All of the different deadlines for budgeting, spending, or raising the debt ceiling, should all be used to try to reform the main problem that we have up here, which is: We spend more money than we have," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., argued that Republicans need to think strategically about how to attract Democratic support, such as delaying the individual mandate. But he was unconvinced that tying a delay measure to a CR was the best route.

"I think we need to look for a strategy that actually could work, that would actually have enough Democrats that would vote for it that it could happen," he said.

Many Republican senators who made their opposition to Obamacare explicit cautioned against a government shutdown, arguing it would not stop the health law and could have dire politcal ramifcations.

"It is a suicide note," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "I was here the last time we saw this movie."

Adding to the convoluted message, Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he is skeptical about the shutdown being advocated by some Republicans. "I want to do things that are doable," he said. But he said he does "empathize and I may very well vote with them because I believe we ought to get rid of Obamacare. It's going to be, and it is, a catastrophe for the country."

Other Republicans are aiming to attach a delay of Obamacare to the upcoming debt-ceiling debate. "What you can do is try to delay and fix it. That's what I believe our strategy ought to be," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Despite a growing interest in delay, the Heritage Action Network is still lobbying forcefully for adoption of the measure from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., to defund Obamacare, arguing it is the only provision being considered that will defang the law.

Among the 14 Senate Republicans who are clinging to this approach is Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who admits he's fighting a losing battle.

"It's mostly symbolic," he said. "We want to have something out there so people continue to talk about it.... That's a way of keeping the issue alive.... It is something you have to keep doing because you have strong beliefs and even if logically it isn't going to work out the way you want it, you still try."

Indeed, neither a delay nor a defunding stands much chance of becoming law. Senate Democrats have said they won't allow a delay, and White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that the administration won't "accept anything that delays or defunds" the health care law.

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