Why Defunding Obamacare Is an Idea That Won't Die

The Tea Party fixation matters: It's already complicating the latest fiscal showdown in Congress. Once again, John Boehner is in a bind.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The Tea Partiers who are convinced Obamacare can still be stopped gathered in front of the Capitol on Tuesday. There were perhaps a couple thousand of them, from all over the country, some in buses chartered by local patriot groups. One man carried this sign:

HEY YOU
C
REEPS
WE ARE BACK

This time, the “creeps” are the Republicans who are refusing to go along with the scheme to block Obamacare by taking away its funding. Signs and speakers, from activists like the the Tea Party Patriots’s Jenny Beth Martin to more than a dozen Republican members of Congress, excoriated House Speaker John Boehner as weak-willed and untrustworthy. “‘No!’ to BoehnerCare!” proclaimed one placard. (Another announced that Obama was “a bigger threat than al Qaeda.”) While Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky urged his party not to be the “invertebrate caucus,” a middle-aged white man stood next to me shouting, “Send Boehner home! Screw the SOBs! Send 'em home!”

Here’s why it matters. First, now that vote on intervening in Syria has been indefinitely tabled, Congress can get back to its previously scheduled disaster -- the continual confrontation over the budgeting process. (The federal government's funding will run out at the end of the month, and the debt ceiling will be hit sometime in October, forcing Congress to authorize more spending or provoke government shutdown and default, respectively.) The ardor on the right for defunding Obamacare has already thrown a wrench in the process, making shutdown or default harder to avoid. Second, it’s the latest chapter in the ongoing struggle for dominance between the Republican establishment and grassroots -- a struggle that will determine the beleaguered party’s fate, and by extension the political future of the country, in the years to come.

When the “defund Obamacare” movement began this summer, most Republicans believed it was safe to ignore it. It was not so much a legislative strategy, after all, as a magical-thinking fever dream. The idea: Since the expiration of federal funding at the end of this month coincides with the October 1 opening of the Obamacare exchanges, Congress, according to the defunders, should agree to keep funding the rest of the government, but strip the money needed to implement the health-care law. When others pointed out that the Democrat-controlled Senate was unlikely to pass, and Obama was unlikely to sign, a proposal gutting his hard-won signature domestic achievement, and that the result would be a government shutdown for which Republicans would be blamed, these people were informed that they were creeps and liars and wimps. It was, come to think of it, not too dissimilar from the pundits who continue to fault Obama for not being able to get anything done: Point out that the Congress doesn’t seem inclined to go along with his plans, and they reply, Well, with that attitude, of course not.

Just 13 senators and 80 members of the House of Representatives signed onto the defunding effort, short of a majority of the Republican caucus in both houses. But early predictions that the initiative would wither for lack of support proved premature. Over the summer, it became the central focus of the Tea Party Industrial Complex, which was having trouble getting partisans riled up about other things, like opposing immigration reform. Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and the Club for Growth all got on board. The Tea Party Patriots and ForAmerica held rallies in 10 cities under the slogan, “Exempt America.” (Congressional staffers and big business have already been “exempted” from the strictures of the Affordable Care Act, the groups contend; now it’s time to exempt the rest of us.) Heritage Action hit nine more cities. A crowd of hundreds packed a hotel auditorium in Dallas to see Senator Ted Cruz. Tea Party Patriots members could download toolkits from the group's website to help them write their local newspaper and call their local congressman. ForAmerica generated 40,000 such phone calls, and started releasing campaign-ad-style videos aimed at squishy senators like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, comparing them to chickens.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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