Conservative groups and their allies in Congress appear to be rallying around a new strategy to refocus budget negotiations on Obamacare, the original point of contention that led to the government shutdown that’s is heading into its tenth day.
In a somewhat ironic development, support is growing on the right for a short-term debt-limit increase with relatively few strings attached. “We should raise the debt,” Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham told reporters Wednesday. “My tactic is to focus on the [continuing resolution].”
FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe agreed, telling the Huffington Post that the new strategy “looks to be where everybody’s gravitating to.” RedState’s Erick Erickson is on board, arguing that Republicans “are winning the shutdown fight” and a contentious showdown over the debt limit would be an unwelcome distraction. For what it’s worth, President Obama has indicated he’d be open to a short-term debt-limit increase.
Republicans who supported the effort to defund Obamacare acknowledge that the conversation has drifted since the government shut down on October 1. And they have a plan to fix that.
With the debt limit off the table, at least temporarily, Republicans would apply intense pressure on Senate majority leader Harry Reid over his refusing to take up a series of piecemeal funding bills that have already passed the House with bipartisan support. The bills would fund individual aspects of the government — veterans’ benefits, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and benefits for low-income women and children. The House has also passed a measure, almost unanimously, to provide back pay for furloughed federal workers.
These Republicans believe that Reid’s position is politically untenable. He has already approved a House-passed bill to pay members of the military during the shutdown, and the president signed it into law, the argument goes, so why won’t Democrats support doing the same for veterans, and for kids with cancer, and low-income mothers? How long will Reid be able to keep his vulnerable red-state Democrats from breaking ranks?
GOP aides are looking at polls that show Reid’s refusal to negotiate does not sit well with voters, especially independents. (Reid might have seen those same polls, given the way his rhetoric has shifted of late.) “Message-wise, they are getting crushed right now,” a senior GOP aide says. “I don’t think they can sustain it much longer.”
Of course, most polls also show that Republicans are “losing” the shutdown, in that more Americans are blaming them than they are congressional Democrats or the president (the GOP’s favorable overall have also dropped more than the Democratic party’s). But many conservative are unfazed; they argue that a far more relevant statistic is that (according to the latest AP poll) more than 80 percent of Americans said that neither they nor their family members have been personally impacted by the shutdown. “If it doesn’t change their everyday lives, what are they going to be angry about, and hold us accountable for, in the next election?” the GOP aide says.
Meanwhile, many Americans are beginning to personally experience the impact of Obamacare, as the disastrous rollout of its online health-care exchanges enters its second week and premium-hike and plan-cancellation notices go out to millions. According to a recent CNN poll, 40 percent of Americans think they will be worse off under the law, compared with just 17 percent who expect they’ll be better off. “That’s what people vote on,” adds the aide.
But first, Republicans need to shift the conversation back to Obamacare. They plan to highlight some of the more embarrassing ways the government has handled the shutdown — preventing veterans from visiting the National World War II Memorial, forcing the closure of privately operated parks, and denying death benefits for veterans’ families.
“This is the inevitable result of a government that is too big and too powerful,” the aide says. “The government has shown a vindictive willingness to misuse its power to gain political advantage, the American people be damned. Do you want these people involved in the most intimate decisions about your health care?”
One possible outcome that would allow Republicans to declare victory, conservatives think, is that President Obama, faced with a disastrous Obamacare rollout, will decide on his own to take Wolf Blitzer’s advice: “Delay it another year, get it ready, and make sure it works.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.