Politics

House and Senate Republicans battle over ObamaCare defunding

House and Senate Republicans battle over ObamaCare defunding

Yesterday I thought the Republicans were standing on good ground to wage a battle over ObamaCare defunding, and ultimately repeal.  Today they turned their guns on each other, in a spectacle that must bring a smile to Democrats who were wondering how they could possibly defend their disastrous health-care plan.  They might not have to, if the behavior described by Fox News keeps up:

The squabble started after House Speaker John Boehner earlier in the day announced he would agree to the demands of Tea Party-aligned lawmakers to tie a vote on de-funding the health care law to a vote on a must-pass budget bill.

The move would effectively condition the approval of the spending bill on ObamaCare being de-funded, or else risk a government shutdown when funding runs out at the end of the month.

But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of the most vocal supporters of the “de-fund ObamaCare” push, startled his House colleagues when he released a written statement Wednesday afternoon that appeared to acknowledge the bill will probably fail in the Senate.

“Today’s announcement that the House will vote to defund ObamaCare is terrific news,” Cruz said, in a press release from him, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

“Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so. At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people.”

This led to grumbles from the House that their Senate colleagues are “waving the white flag already,” and wistful memories of Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) conducting his old-school filibuster against drone strikes.  Anonymous staffers rushed to the nearest reporter to dump ugly sound bites like “It’s time to put on the big boy pants.  Maybe this will wean us of the bed-wetters.”

I didn’t think it was terribly helpful for House Speaker John Boehner to unveil the ObamaCare defunding resolution yesterday by needling the Senate with public statements like, “The fight over here has been won.  The House has voted over 40 times to change ObamaCare, to repeal it.  It’s time for the Senate to have this fight.”  But it’s even less helpful for Cruz, Rubio, and Lee to prove themselves sorely in need of a good needling.  The House did what Cruz and his supporters wanted them to do.  They deserved better than to have Cruz say thanks, and then immediately declare their efforts futile.

Part of the problem stems from the sort of “inartful phrasing” (as Mitt Romney described it) that Republicans really need to stop using.  The Cruz statement did not say that Senate Republicans weren’t going to do their best to support the measure.  The assessment that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “likely has the votes” to strip out the defunding language is probably accurate.  It’s not wrong to encourage the House to stand firm if and when that happens.  The ultimate best-case result would be a presidential veto, followed by a government shutdown drama in which an unpopular President threatens to nuke Washington unless his even more unpopular health-care bill receives funding. But the language and tone used to convey these realities is important.

Republicans must hang together to weather the coming storm, and make Democrats pay a steep political price for protecting ObamaCare… a price that should influence the outcome of the 2014 midterm elections, and perhaps the 2016 presidential contest. If the GOP wants to ask the voters for a veto-proof Senate majority – 2014 is the kind of election where they should be aiming high – they have to show people they would do something worthwhile from such a position.  ObamaCare was shoved down our throats because Democrats enjoyed a moment of complete control, which they started trying to make the public forget about, as soon as it was over.  Republicans can argue that only a comparable moment of GOP control can set things right.  But that argument is hard to make when they spend their days lobbing custard-pie sound bites in each others’ faces, instead of looking like a serious, unified party with a solid agenda.  And it becomes harder to persuade voters that ObamaCare is a crisis in need of such drastic solutions if Republicans pass up on a clearly appropriate moment to take a stand and make their case, even if the odds of passing their preferred legislation look formidable.

Every conflict, military or political, boils down to a contest of will.  Morale is crucial.  This was not a good moment for Senate Republicans, particularly the stalwart Tea Party favorites, to say something that would weaken the morale of their House colleagues, or for that matter other Senators.  This is not the time to have the media writing about the Great Republican Crack-Up, rather than the Great ObamaCare Failure.  A sports team facing a tough challenge doesn’t send Coach out to tell reporters, “We’re probably gonna lose, but thanks for showing up to watch us play.”

The Democrats generally understand that – you don’t see them kicking off their doomed gun-control crusades by issuing statements that admit they’ll probably lose the vote, do you?  If I were helping Cruz, Rubio, and Lee put that statement together, I would have said something like, “Harry Reid is going to try stuffing money for ObamaCare back into this budget resolution, and we call on every concerned American – including our colleagues across the aisle – to help us resist that effort.  It is fiscally irresponsible to fund a program as badly damaged as the Affordable Care Act, which is already far exceeding its costs, under-performing against its promises, and inflicting terrible damage on the American job market.  We believe both Democrats and Republicans, in both the House and Senate, and all across America, will agree and vote responsibly.”

Anything less that complete enthusiasm reduces the cost of a Democrat political victory, which should be agonizing for them.  Who knows what nervous Democrats eyeballing the 2014 polls might do, if Republicans do a good enough job of rallying public support?  Who knows what President Obama might do, if the landscape of popular opinion is so heavily tilted against him, and he must think not only of the next election, but of his successor in the White House?  Who can say how the battlefield for the debt-ceiling struggle, and the next effort to repeal ObamaCare, might look if this effort fails…. but comes close enough to shift the tectonic plates of American politics?  We’ll never find out if Republicans don’t take their best shot, and nobody takes their best shot after loudly announcing that they’ll probably miss.

Update: Senators Cruz and Lee are going to hold a press conference this afternoon to discuss ObamaCare defunding.  This will be a splendid opportunity to elaborate on their initial statement, and perhaps find some more artful phrasing.

Update: Cruz and Lee had their mojo back at today’s press conference.  “I will do everything necessary, and anything possible, to defund ObamaCare,” said Cruz.  He said he would use “any procedural means necessary,” including a filibuster.

“Listen, this is the most important fight in the country, and it’s easy to focus on the political back and forth,” he added, referring to the flap with House Republicans.  He said it’s all about “Congress using the Constitutional power of the purse to rein in an overreaching executive and to stand up for the American people.”

“If Democrats in the Senate reject [this budget resolution] then they’ve got to come up with a proposal,” added Senator Lee.  “This law is not worth causing a shutdown over.”

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