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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell returns to his office after speaking on the Senate floor.
Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell returns to his office after speaking on the Senate floor.

Shutdown showdown letdown

Congress | Effort to defund Obamacare while funding the government is losing traction among most Senate Republicans

WASHINGTON—The Senate showdown over funding Obamacare and a government shutdown will occur without support from the body’s top Republican.

After the House passed legislation last week to keep the government open through Dec. 15 only if the healthcare law is not funded, conservative groups such as the Senate Conservative Fund called on Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to lead the charge in the Senate.

McConnell on Tuesday morning took to the Senate floor and announced he would not participate in a strategy, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to prevent Senate Democrats from detaching the Obamacare defunding measure from the larger government-funding bill.

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“I just don’t happen to think filibustering a bill that defunds Obamacare is the best route to defunding Obamacare,” McConnell said. “All it does is shut down the government and keep Obamacare funded. And none of us want that.”

With the majority of Senate Republicans expected to side with McConnell, that leaves Cruz with only a handful of allies in his effort to use the need to approve a government funding measure before the Sept. 30 deadline as leverage for killing the controversial healthcare law. And in the Byzantine world of Senate procedure, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., already has moved this week to cut Cruz’s options. Reid will strip the Obamacare provision from the larger House bill, set up passage using a simple 51-vote majority (instead of a 60-vote threshold), and make it impossible for Cruz to filibuster the bill by limiting the debate to 30 hours.

“Filibusters stop people from voting and we are going to vote,” Reid said. “No one can stop that.”

Cruz on Monday asked the Senate to make any effort to purge the measure of the provision defunding Obamacare subject to a 60-vote minimum. Republicans hold just 45 seats in the Senate, and Reid objected to Cruz’s request. Cruz then blamed Reid and the Democrats for any future government shutdown.

“No one on this side of the aisle wants a government shutdown,” Cruz said. “Five minutes ago the Senate could have avoided a government shutdown … but unfortunately the majority leader chose to object and say no. … Why? Because he supports the law called Obamacare."

Regardless of the Senate outcome, the move by the House to tie Obamacare to the federal funding bill was a victory for such conservative lobbying groups as the Senate Conservative Fund and Heritage Action. It showed they have growing clout in some quarters of Capitol Hill one year after the 2012 election defeats. Heritage Action, the political arm of The Heritage Foundation, hosted a nine-city tour this summer pushing the very strategy employed in last weeks’ House vote. Now those groups are hoping that grassroots angst and anger over Obamacare will begin to influence senators like it did House members.

“This is a powerful development for the cause of freedom, showing that our representatives are listening to the concerns of the American people about this unworkable, unfair, and unpopular healthcare law,” Jim DeMint, Heritage president and a former senator from South Carolina, said after last week’s House vote.

But so far this week it seems most Republican senators are not responding to the conservative groups’ calls to fix their bayonets and charge. To some senators and their staffers, the drama on Capitol Hill over funding the government while defunding Obamacare will also serve to increase funds elsewhere: the conservative groups’ coffers. The fight’s publicity is expanding the email lists of supporters for these groups. And Republican outsiders likely feel bold enough to attack Republican insiders with friendly fire thanks to surveys such as the Pew Research Center’s recent findings that more than 70 percent of Tea Party Republicans disapprove of the job being done by GOP leaders. 

The ire has found its epicenter in Obamacare, which goes live on Oct. 1. Conservatives are blaming “wishy-washy” Republicans for making empty promises to stop the new healthcare program despite protests from top Republicans that there is little of significance they can do with Democrats controlling the Senate and occupying the White House.

“I’d like for them to stop thinking about their own reelections for five minutes,” ForAmerica’s Brent Bozell said about Republican lawmakers at a recent Atlanta rally.

But it will be hard for lawmakers to ignore elections when conservative groups are campaigning against them. Such groups held town halls this summer displaying cardboard cutouts of lawmakers who declined to attend, held a defunding Obamacare rally outside Speaker of the House John Boehner’s Ohio headquarters, and set up a website seeking challengers to moderate Republicans.

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