Republicans will proclaim solidarity Friday when the House of Representatives votes to defund the 2010 health care law. Don’t be fooled:
The party is bitterly divided about how and when to get rid of Obamacare. The struggle over tactics could well determine who controls the Republican Party – and just as important, its image – for years to come.
One contingent is actively promoting the Friday vote, which will strip money for implementing the law, while keeping the government running after the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. But a lot of prominent Republicans – including, at one time, much of the House Republican leadership – have tried mightily to avoid such a vote.
They know that the Democratic-run Senate and President Barack Obama would never agree, setting the stage for a shutdown of most government services when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. They also know polls show more Americans would blame them than the Democrats for a shutdown.
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None of that stops the no-compromise crowd. It’s fueled by well-financed, well-organized conservative groups, some of whom vow to challenge any Republican incumbent who wavers. Their nemeses are Republicans in swing congressional districts and senators from diverse states, usually with long histories of winning general elections.
“Over the long term, this (split) is a really big deal,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst. “You not only have a formula for more gridlock, but for Democrats to run against Republicans as extremists.”
They’re quickly doing just that. Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev., branded House Republicans as “anarchists.” Thursday, the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee launched a campaign, “GOP Shutdown Watch,” that intends to flood social media with news about Republican behavior.
Republican insurgents have conducted their own relentless campaign. Heritage Action conducts a weekly strategy call with 5,600 “sentinels,” who are advocates or leaders around the country. The group ForAmerica is threatening primaries against those who violate what they consider conservative orthodoxy. The Club for Growth issued a “key vote alert” Thursday saying a yes vote on the health care measure would look good on its annual congressional scorecard.
“We believe defunding Obamacare is the paramount issue for conservatives to support right now,” the club said. It also has a website, primarymycongressman.com, which rails at what it brands “Republicans in Name Only, or RINOs.
“For years moderate Republicans have joined with Democrats to pass liberal policies that harm economic growth,” it says. The site names names. For example, it’s actively supporting a primary challenge to Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, accused of being too willing to compromise with Democrats.
Advocates maintain too many Republicans in recent years have been too willing to give in on a host of pet issues – notably agreeing to raise the debt ceiling and failing to stop higher Social Security taxes this year – and it’s time to take a stand.
“We must use every legislative avenue available . . . to free the country from the president’s train wreck of a health care law,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
If congressional Republicans don’t stand firm against health care, Republican voters will just stay home in 2014, warned David Bozell, executive director of ForAmerica. “These guys fear nothing more than losing their seat,” he said.
His allies tend to be lawmakers from staunchly conservative districts in such states as North Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia. Primarymycongressman’s targets include Republicans from Illinois, Oregon, Indiana and Arizona.
Incumbents are nervous about the clout these diehards could have. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for instance, faces a primary challenge from businessman Matt Bevin. Asked about the health care law, McConnell railed against it but would not say what he might do once the House bill reaches the Senate.
“We will react to what they (the House) send us and be happy to vote on it at that point,” he said.
The party’s pragmatic wing is trying hard to derail this take-no-prisoners approach. At least a dozen Republican senators have expressed misgivings about bundling the defunding effort with the stopgap budget.
“The fact is that strategy is not going to be successful. The president’s never going to say, ‘OK, I’ll sign a repeal measure,’” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who faces re-election next year.
If conservatives do press for a shutdown, she sees trouble for Republicans. “The American people have made it clear they don’t want government to shut down,” she said, “and it would be wise for people to pursue alternative means of repealing or defunding Obamacare that did not involve a potential shutdown of government.”
Outsiders with influence in the party are weighing in with similar thoughts.
“Going down that road would strengthen the president while alienating independents,” Karl Rove, architect of George W. Bush’s presidential victories, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Thursday. “It is an ill-conceived tactic, and Republicans should reject it.”
So far, there’s no favorite in this intraparty tug-of-war.
“Republicans, by their very nature, are a bit more independent than our colleagues across the aisle. I’ve seen that from the day I got here,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday. “And so whenever we’re trying to put together a plan, we’ve got 233 members, all of whom have their own plan. It’s tough to get them on the same track.”
He was asked what he saw as the endgame. What would he do if – when – the Senate strips the health care defunding out of the House bill, passes it, and sends it back to the House for its approval.
Suddenly Boehner was not so self-assured. “I’m not going to get into the ifs, ands and buts and all that nonsense,” he said. He may as well have been talking about his party, too.