The Push to Defund Obamacare Is Running Out of Steam

A trio of Tea Party-backed senators have threatened to shut down the government if Obama's signature achievement isn't killed.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

The GOP drive to defund Obamacare is leaking oil.

From the leaders of the GOP establishment to usual Tea Party allies, a growing number of Republicans are splitting with movement conservatives who are pushing to shut down the federal government if funding is not cut off for President Obama's health care law at the end of September.

The growing concern is that the Tea Party activists and a handful of senators, led by the troika of Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Marco Rubio of Florida, are marching into battle without a plan for victory short of Obama reversing himself on his signature domestic achievement -- an almost unimaginable outcome.

"Next to impossible," said one Tea Party favorite, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., last week.

Even Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has signed onto the defunding push, questioned whether it would actually work. "I may not be able to guarantee victory," Paul told Sean Hannity last week on Fox News.

The infighting has left Republicans battling each other instead of the Democrats over internal political tactics heading into the next fiscal fight.

"I think it's the dumbest idea I've ever heard of," Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said late last month. "Listen, as long as Barack Obama is president, the Affordable Care Act is going to be law."

Conservative groups accuse the GOP establishment of adopting a defeatist attitude. "You can't win if you don't fight, and the Republican Party -- and the leadership in the party -- has done nothing but cave, cave, and cave," said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a Tea Party-aligned group that supports the defunding push.

Hoskins pointed particular blame at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has not joined in the defunding push or even taken a public position. McConnell is up for reelection in 2014 and faces a new Tea Party challenger, Matt Bevin. In a fundraising email to supporters Friday with the subject line "McConnell Surrenders to Reid on Obamacare," the Senate Conservatives Fund said it was raising money for a statewide campaign to make McConnell "feel the heat."

"This issue is a major test for Mitch McConnell and he has failed conservatives time and time again," Hoskins said in an interview.

In the Senate, Lee, Cruz, and Rubio are trying to buttonhole colleagues to pledge to oppose keeping the government running past September 30 unless funding for the health-care law is cut off. Lee has repeatedly called it the "last best chance" to stop the health-care law.

But so far they have the signatures of only 13 senators. "The only place that this effort is controversial is inside the Beltway," said Brian Phillips, a Lee spokesman. A total of 41 Republican senators would have to vow to block a government funding measure to guarantee success in the Senate.

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Shane Goldmacher is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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