Politics & Policy

To Defund or Not to Defund, That Is the Question

Senator Mike Lee (left) and Senator Ted Cruz
How to fight Obamacare: Risk a government shutdown, or sit back and wait for the backlash?

Most Republicans can’t wait for 2014 and the chance to run against Obamacare, which appears increasingly vulnerable in light of ongoing implementation woes. In the meantime, however, they must agree on how to best pursue their ultimate goal of full repeal as Congress enters a new round of budget negotiations with the White House this fall.

#ad#Not surprisingly, the GOP appears somewhat divided on strategy. Republican Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio are leading an effort to oppose any resolution to fund the government in fiscal year 2014 that includes funding to implement Obamacare. “If the administration will not enforce the law as written, then the American people should not be forced to fund it,” they wrote in a letter to Senate majority leader Harry Reid, in reference to President Obama’s decision to unilaterally delay implementation of the law’s coverage mandate for employers with more than 50 employees. So far, 13 GOP senators have signed on, along with a number of conservative groups, such as FreedomWorks and Jim DeMint’s Heritage Foundation, which plans to embark on a “Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour” later this month.

The movement has its fair share of Republican critics. Senator Tom Coburn has called it “dishonest,” and “a good way for Republicans to lose the House.” Senator Richard Burr said it was “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” GOP strategist Karl Rove has urged Republicans to “resist a game of chicken with the president” over Obamacare and the continuing resolution to fund the government, which is set to expire at the end of September. House majority leader Eric Cantor recently threw cold water on the proposed strategy, telling National Review Online that while “repealing Obamacare remains the goal,” defunding the law is off the table because it is unlikely to win 60 votes in the Senate.

A conservative coalition led by Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist has proposed an alternative position, urging congressional leaders to demand “at minimum” a one-year delay of all 2014 Obamacare provisions as part of any budget deal. The two plans are not necessarily incompatible, Norquist argues. “Defunding the whole thing is a fine proposal, and they should have that vote, but more likely what we can get is a delay for one year,” he tells me.

Obama would never support defunding the law, just as Republicans would never agree to strict gun-control measures as a condition for funding the government, he says. But in the current political environment, the GOP could conceivably force the president into accepting a one-year delay. That would advance the ultimate goal of full repeal, he argues. “In no way does delaying it for a year make it less likely that we can get rid of it down the road,” Norquist says. “I actually think we’d be in a stronger position a year from now.”

Some Republicans think they’ll lose political leverage by demanding a full defunding of the law as part of a budget deal and are wary of being cast as obstructionists. They would prefer to fight on much narrower grounds by, for example, targeting the law’s controversial individual mandate, which is scheduled to take effect next year. Republicans believe that most voters will agree that Obama’s decision to unilaterally delay the mandate for employers, but not for individuals, is fundamentally unfair. At the very least, they want to force Democrats to defend their position publicly. The House has already passed legislation to delay the individual mandate for a year — with the help of 35 Democrats.

That might not be enough to satisfy some conservatives; they want nothing less than Republicans’ cutting off the spigot of taxpayer dollars funding Obamacare. “If the money is still flowing, then you’re just giving bureaucrats a year to better prepare to take the nation down this course,” says Mike Needham, CEO of Heritage Action.

“The people who voted against this law initially — if they fund it, they’re voting for it, they’ll be flip-flopping,” Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, tells NRO. “Americans want their politicians to stand firm.”

One GOP Senate aide says he’s confident that, at the very least, there will be a vote to defund the law, and that it will be closely watched by grassroots activists. “This is TARP for 2014,” the aide says. “This is what determines whether or not you get a primary challenge.”

Some Republicans have decided that it makes political sense to sit back and allow Obamacare to take effect, and then reap the benefits of the inevitable public backlash. Meanwhile, conservatives who aren’t taken with that strategy support the push to defund the law because it allows them to go on offense.

“If Republicans take the high road, if Republicans say, look, there is a lot that we’ve learned about this bill, and it’s time for us to have a real honest debate, I think the American people will rally to them,” Needham says. “People are looking for leadership, and the reason that Washington, D.C., is in such low esteem is that everybody in this town is deathly afraid of leading.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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