Politics & Policy

The Defund-Obamacare Civil War

Some conservatives might abandon Republican leadership on a key vote.

A handful of conservative Republicans walked into a meeting with Majority Leader Eric Cantor Monday night anticipating a discussion — an effort to find consensus.

What they got instead was a perfunctory heads-up about his plan for the upcoming fight over the “continuing resolution,” or CR, a bill to continue funding the government when the current appropriations run out. Under Cantor’s plan, the House would pass two different bills, a standard CR and a measure to defund Obamacare. Through parliamentary wizardry, though, the House would keep the Senate from voting on the CR bill until it had also voted on the Obamacare measure.

#ad#The meeting was part of what has been a difficult rollout for the Virginia Republican’s proposal, which is facing significant opposition from conservatives who would like to push harder to defund or delay Obamacare. The vote on the measures, planned for today or tomorrow, could easily go down in flames.

First, influential conservative outside groups such as the Club for Growth trashed the plan. Then, Senator Mike Lee, the original architect of the use-the-CR-to-defund-Obamacare strategy, ripped Cantor’s idea as a “face-saving” gimmick that added insult to the injury of abandoning the grassroots’ calls for a do-or-die fight on Obamacare. “It is not a plan to defund Obamacare — it’s a plan to facilitate the passage of a CR in a way that allows people to claim that they’re defunding Obamacare without actually doing so,” Lee told me.

Representatives Tom Graves of Georgia and Jim Jordan of Ohio are whipping members against Cantor’s plan. Jordan, a former Republican Study Committee chairman, in particular will bring conservatives with him, putting the vote, planned for Wednesday or Thursday, in peril.

For passage of the CR, Republicans will probably need to produce their own majority of 218 votes, since Democrats have signaled they will object to Cantor’s Obamacare gambit as well as the overall spending level in Cantor’s continuing resolution, which is slightly lower than they would prefer. So as few as 17 Republicans would be needed to bring the plan down, making it well within reach for Cantor’s opponents.

One issue that could change the course of the debate is the upcoming fight over the debt ceiling. In a closed-door conference meeting Tuesday morning, Cantor briefly addressed the subject, speaking favorably about pushing for a one-year Obamacare delay during that debt-ceiling debate.

Some on the right dismiss the debt-ceiling battle as just another in a long line of fights conservatives promise to fight another day. But there are key House Republicans who could be swayed on those grounds. Jordan, for one, said at the closed-door conference meeting that a commitment to fight over Obamacare with the debt ceiling would sway his vote on the CR.

Leadership is trying to redirect conservatives’ energies toward that battle.

“I think the debt ceiling would be a perfect avenue and the right avenue to have that debate,” Kevin McCarthy, the third-ranking whip, told me, adding that the CR deals with only 6 percent of the federal budget and thus provides less leverage than does the debt-ceiling fight. “We think Obamacare won’t work. He thinks it’s not prepared to go. So it’s a perfect opportunity, when you have the number of Democrats vote the way they have on certain elements of delay, to delay the whole thing.”

Another argument from Cantor, McCarthy, and other House Republicans is that if Republicans try to enact serious anti-Obamacare measures with the CR, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will use the fight to open a sequester Pandora’s box, enlisting liberal Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham to build bipartisan support. McCain and Graham, both foreign-policy hawks, have expressed their deep concern about the impact of the sequester cuts on the Defense Department, House aides reason, so they might be more apt to forge a bipartisan deal to undo some of the sequester cuts that affect Defense. 

Meanwhile, there are competing arguments among conservatives about the relative urgency of defunding Obamacare. One argument making the rounds is that it’s crucial to defund Obamacare before the insurance exchanges open in October. A conflicting take is that the opening of the exchanges could reveal new problems with Obamacare, enhancing the GOP’s arguments against the law.

For GOP lawmakers, especially the far-right Republicans who would bring down the vote, the pressure from the outside is intense. The Senate Conservatives Fund sent an e-mail alert highlighting “29 conservatives with the guts and the courage and the principles to stand up to their leadership and say, ‘No — we’re not going to go along with this sham,’” says Matt Hoskins, the group’s executive director.

The e-mail alert may have worked too well. Aides reported that phones were clogged in the offices of those conservatives, hindering their coordination against Cantor’s plan. That was par for the course on a day of confusion and recriminations among Republicans trying to form a strategy for the coming spending showdowns.

— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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