Ted Cruz may be an omnipresent rising conservative star. But the Texas Republican and his allies, including Senators Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), along with outside groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, aren’t so popular in the House these days. Their aggressive defunding campaign, which has (via Heritage Action) pledged to spend more than half-a-million dollars in online ads targeting House Republicans, has aggravated the leadership as well as rank-and-file members.
Aides complain, often heatedly, about what they view as an effort to micromanage House Republicans that risks not only dividing the party but also destroying the GOP’s political leverage in budget negotiations with the White House. They are convinced that the ultimate goal of the defund campaign is to shut the government down, something that polls suggest could be a political disaster for Republicans.
Having spent weeks consulting with members both during and after the August recess, House leaders thought they had a viable plan to keep the government funded at sequestration levels while also giving both chambers an opportunity to vote to defund Obamacare. They believed they had lived up to the spirit of a letter organized by Representative Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), and signed by 80 members, that urged House leaders to “affirmatively de-fund the implementation and enforcement of ObamaCare in any relevant appropriations bill brought to the House floor,” and to “continue our efforts to repeal ObamaCare in its entirety this year, next year, and until we are successful.”
But the defund coalition immediately cried foul. Cruz dismissed the plan, which was introduced by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.), as “procedural chicanery.” If House Republicans went along with it, he added, “they will be complicit in the disaster that is Obamacare.” Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, accused House leadership of “trying to fool Republicans into voting to fund Obamacare,” which was “even worse than offering a bill that deliberately funds it.” House leaders postponed a vote on the plan when it became clear that they weren’t enough Republicans votes to pass it.
Supporters of the plan, which reportedly numbered more than 200 House Republicans, were frustrated and more than a little confused. Defunders had insisted that they could successfully pressure Senate Democrats into voting to defund the president’s signature law — highly unlikely, but now they would have that chance. Why reject it?
“They said they could pass this in the Senate, and laughed at everyone who said it wasn’t possible, and said you’re a coward and a Marxists for not believing us,” Grover Norquist, president of American for Tax Reform said of the defund movement. “Now they’re offered the opportunity to pass it in the Senate, and what is their response? ‘We’re not doing this’?”
One House GOP aide called out Cruz specifically for being a backseat driver who is trying to dictate how the House conducts its business — he compared him to “the guy in elementary school who stands in the background yelling, ‘Fight, fight!’ but never actually throws a punch.” Several aides complained that Cruz and company were misleading conservatives about the possibility (basically zero, they say) that Obamacare will actually be defunded this year, given Democratic control of the Senate and the White House “He is a smart guy,” a senior GOP aide says of Cruz. “I know he knows better than this. Don’t kid people about what the reality of life is.”
Cruz’s press secretary Catherine Frazier fired back. “The reality of life is that Obamacare is an impending disaster for our already-fragile economy and hard-working Americans,” she says. “If we don’t defund it before it gets implemented, it will be immensely harder to undo it. The only thing preventing Republicans from succeeding is political will. If Republicans in Congress will simply act on what they claim to want to accomplish — to get rid of Obamacare — there is no reason we can’t succeed, and defunding is the first step.”
Critics of the defund campaign note that even Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, the former senator who has been a leading voice in the defunding effort, has admitted that Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is unlikely to even take up a bill that defunds Obamacare. President Obama would ultimately have to sign it as well, another hard-to-fathom scenario.
Those who are demanding a hardline stand on defunding are really gunning for a government shutdown, critics argue, pointing to statements from Cruz and others suggesting that a shutdown wouldn’t be such a bad thing, and that the public could be convinced that Obama and Democrats were to blame. “The risk of [a shutdown] is so much less than the risk to our country if we implement Obamacare,” DeMint said during a town-hall meeting in Arkansas. “And so I’m not as interested in the political futures of folks who think they might lose a showdown with the president.”
A recent CNN poll found that 51 percent of Americans would blame Republicans in the event of a government shutdown, compared with 33 percent who said they would blame the president. Critics of the defund movement are inclined to believe those numbers. “Obama will never be in a position to shut the government down, because the Senate isn’t going to pass anything [that defunds Obama] and put it on his desk,” Norquist said. “You can’t blame him rhetorically, because the media won’t let you, but you also can’t blame him factually. ‘He didn’t make the Senate pass our bill’ is not a compelling argument.”
“We not fighting just to fight, we’re fighting to win,” said the House GOP aide opposed to the defund movement. “We can keep dismantling Obamacare if we maintain our leverage, and we lose all leverage in a government shutdown.”
Dan Holler, communication director for Heritage Action, dismissed this attitude as defeatist. “Republicans don’t have enough faith in their ability to move polls. They never try to change the playing field,” he says, arguing that the conservative campaign against Obamacare was a significant reason that support for the law has hit all-time lows. Criticism of Heritage Action and others, he says, also ignores that many GOP voters support their efforts. “If it was just Heritage Action in Washington, D.C., that’s one thing, but the real pressure is coming from constituents,” Holler said. “They [House leadership] can channel their anger anonymously toward us; that’s fine. Ultimately this is being driven from the grassroots.”
GOP Senate aides supporting the defund efforts also pushed back at criticism coming from the House. Leadership’s preferred strategy was to “let Obamacare go into effect, let it hurt the economy, and then exploit that to keep their majority in the House in 2014,” one aide said. “We’re trying to stop it from hurting the economy.” Another aide complained that Republican lawmakers constantly talked about how Obamacare was a terrible law that needed to be repealed, but that they weren’t willing to fight to achieve that goal. “The American people want Obamacare gone, and Republicans have got to stand up and actually follow through with what they say they want to do,” the aide said.
House Republicans should just pass a CR defunding Obamacare, an aide supporting the defund movement suggests, then let the Senate debate it for several weeks to put pressure on Democrats and focus media attention on the unpopular law. Even if that effort failed, it would be a fight worth having.
“If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” the aide says. “Then you can pass your squishy bill [the Cantor plan] and that will be it, but don’t undermine our ability to fight right now. That’s all we’re asking.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.