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.
"Yeah, OK, it doesn't look like we're going to get to 41 but there is a whole lot of time," Phillips said. "We're in the ring. We've got a full 12 rounds to go and we get to punch back."
With momentum stalled in Washington, proponents of "defund or shutdown" know they must rally the base during the current August recess and are ramping up pressure. "We need to activate another grassroots army," Cruz said in a taped message he released earlier this month. Heritage Action, the activist arm of the Heritage Foundation, has organized a nine-city "Defund Obamacare" town-hall tour, beginning Monday in Fayetteville, Ark.
"This has always been a strategy relying on people going home in August and listening to constituents," said Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action.
The activists claim they have the momentum, but so far, the Republican leadership in Washington isn't feeling the pressure. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor reached out to the conservative National Review last week to proclaim that "no one is advocating a government shutdown."
"To get 60 votes in the Senate, you need at least 14 Democrats to join Republicans and pass a [measure] that defunds Obamacare," Cantor said. "Right now, I am not aware of a single Democrat in the Senate who would join us. If and when defunding has 60 votes in the Senate, we will absolutely deliver more than 218 votes in the House."