The Defunding Schism

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Congressional Republicans are currently fighting each other over how to go about fighting Obamacare. Some of them think that they should refuse to vote for any legislation to fund government operations unless it also de-funds Obamacare, and use the fact that Democrats need Republican sign-off on funding the government to get their way. Most of them seem to think that while Obamacare needs to be repealed, trying to do it this way is a lousy strategy that will end with Obamacare still chugging along and Republicans discredited and divided.

I’m in the second camp, and have explained why here and here. Here I want to make a few additional points that I think conservatives in both camps (and non-conservatives in neither) can agree on:

1) If they accomplish their objective of defunding Obamacare by threatening a government shutdown, the defunders will have done something amazing. The leverage they have is that they can keep House Republicans from passing anything if they can get 17 congressmen—that’s 7 percent of the conference—to buck the leadership. If they can use that leverage to force the party to do something it considers strategically stupid, and then the party can use the leverage of its control of the House, to win on the top domestic issue of the Obama years, it will be a win for the ages.

2) If, on the other hand, the combined efforts of Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, et al can’t get even 7 percent of House Republicans’ votes, then these groups will be pretty badly weakened. The House leadership has got to find that prospect attractive: It thinks that these groups are often strategically foolish and, worse, attack people who disagree with their strategies as though they aren’t real conservatives. The same fact has also got to strengthen the groups’ resolve.

3) It’s possible, maybe even likely, that neither the leadership nor the defunders will get their way. In this scenario, the defunders keep the leadership’s bill from passing, but there aren’t 217 Republicans willing to follow the defunders’ strategy into a shutdown. Instead the House passes, with mostly Democratic votes, whatever the Democratic Senate has done. (Alternatively, this happens after a shutdown is blamed on Republicans.) We get a policy result to the left of what either Republican faction wanted—maybe breaking the sequester caps. But those defunders who think it is wrong in principle to vote for a funding bill that allows Obamacare to go forward will be able to stick with their principle and blame this unfortunate outcome on the failure of their colleagues to do the same.

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