On spending issues, congressional Republicans have a coordination problem.
Conservatives in the Senate want to put everything on the line to defund Obamacare when the government runs out of money October 1, potentially forcing a government shutdown. But the House, the one part of the government the GOP controls, is shrugging off the effort. They’re still playing a long-term chess game that was launched by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan in January.
“When you get it figured out, let me know,” says Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a former businessman who has led efforts to get Republicans from the two chambers to coordinate their efforts.
The push by Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) to defund Obamacare is getting a lot of oxygen, both because of the constant bad headlines about the unpopular law and because it has the backing of the “wacko birds” caucus, including senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.
The Utah Republican wants the GOP to block any appropriations bill that funds the law.
Many conservatives are backing him, but the House leadership, which would ultimately need to participate in such a giant fight with President Obama, has all but decided it won’t. “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,” says Representative Tom Cole, an ally of Speaker John Boehner.
Even top House conservatives are walking on eggshells about whether they’re ready to draw a line in the sand now on Obamacare. “We’re discussing it. We’re discussing it right now,” says Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the former chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
Lee remains optimistic, however. “We’ll need coordination on the House side as well. And we’ll have that. There’s a budding effort over there,” he says, noting he has discussed the issue with freshman representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina.
Meadows is gathering signatures on a letter calling broadly for the House leadership to defund Obamacare through the appropriations process. But in an interview in his office in the Longworth building, Meadows sought to distance his “independent” effort from Lee’s and suggested he is open to a compromise, such as securing a delay of the individual mandate for a year.
If you’re scratching your head as to why conservative Republicans in the House are the ones voicing caution, there’s a reason for their hesitation.
Since an agreement was struck between Boehner and a group of top conservatives calling themselves the Jedi Council (Ryan, Jordan, Tom Price, Jeb Hensarling, and Steve Scalise) at the GOP’s January retreat in Williamsburg, Va., House Republicans have been following a carefully crafted strategy. Under the agreement, they will not use appropriations bills to secure policy victories; instead, they will wait for the next debt-ceiling fight, now slated for the fall, which they view as more favorable ground. Ryan, the primary architect of the plan, also crafted the House budget that includes the reforms Republicans will push for in the debt-ceiling fight.
But there has been a long delay since the House GOP launched its strategy. That has created a vacuum for efforts such as Lee’s — and, in the meantime, conservative outside groups and the Senate wacko birds have been growing disenchanted with Ryan’s strategy.
But that’s not swaying key players in the House.
“We have 45 senators that are fighting for relevancy on the Senate side,” says Representative James Lankford, the Republican policy chairman, adding, “I don’t blame them. It’d be a frustrating spot to be in.”
“I think in many ways the Senate is dancing around things and engaging more in political theater than actual quality work product,” adds Representative David Schweikert of Arizona.
And House leadership aides say top GOP officials will work to finalize the GOP’s debt-ceiling proposal over the August recess by phone. This way, when Congress reconvenes in September, there will be a single position to rally around.
Still, with only a little over a month to go before the fight really heats up, conservatives might hope for a greater sense that congressional Republicans are on the same page.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter: @j_strong.