WASHINGTON — Internal fissures are developing among Senate Republicans over whether to risk a government shutdown in pursuit of an aggressive new strategy to kill the new health care law.
Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Deb Fischer of Nebraska were among a dozen GOP senators who penned a letter insisting that they would not support any legislation to keep the government operating this fall unless it also shuts down funding for the Affordable Care Act, which is frequently referred to as Obamacare.
News of the letter produced a swift and strong backlash from other Republicans who denounced the tactic as a pointless and ultimately self-defeating bid for attention.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., went so far as to say it was the “dumbest thing” he'd ever heard of and suggested that the move would simply produce a public relations nightmare that accomplishes nothing.
The current legislation funding day-to-day operations of the federal government expires Sept. 30, and Congress must pass a new spending measure before that date or significant parts of the government will shut down.
That represents leverage in the eyes of the by-any-means-necessary group spearheaded by a trio of Republican senators, Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas.
The Obama administration recently announced that it would delay implementation of a requirement that employers provide their workers with health insurance but would press forward with the requirement that individuals obtain insurance.
“If the administration will not enforce the law as written, then the American people should not be forced to fund it,” the 12 senators wrote in their letter.
On the Senate floor this week, the three senators leading the effort informed their colleagues that if they oppose the law, they must join them in cutting off funding even if it means shutting down the government.
“Defund it or own it,” Lee said. “If you fund it, you're for it.”
Cruz talked about how he envisioned millions of Americans rising up to demand that their elected representatives join the fight before the end of September.
But on the floor and in interviews, other Republicans slammed the group's whole approach.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said it would be “ineffective and inefficient” to turn off the lights on the federal government in an effort to stop the health care law. He released a report by the Congressional Research Service indicating that a government shutdown wouldn't do anything to stop the health care law because much of the law's funding comes from mandatory spending unaffected by the annual appropriations process.
“I want to defund this bill, but I also want to do it in a way that kills it,” Coburn said.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., agreed with Coburn that the approach wouldn't accomplish the stated goal and said all the talk is giving people who oppose the law false hope.
“This is misleading a lot of people,” Johanns said. “As long as the president is President Obama, he's going to veto any action that goes after his pet project. I mean, that should be obvious. … I think this is really designed to try to get attention.”
Johanns said it reminds him of a number of occasions over the years when senators picked an unworkable strategy and then accused others of going soft on the issue if they didn't join in.
Still, Fischer and Grassley defended their support for Cruz and company.
Fischer noted the broad criticism of the administration's decision to delay the employer mandate.
Asked whether the threat to shut down the government is serious, Fischer noted that Lee recently said the government is likely to end up being funded.
“Signing the letter is saying, 'Step back and take a look. Why should we push forward in funding something, first of all we don't have the money to pay for, but that's just continually coming up with more and more problems and more opposition?' ” she said.
Grassley said that as a proponent of repeal, it was just intellectually honest for him to join the defunding effort.
“It's kind of a case that that's where the next battle is,” Grassley said. “So you take advantage of the next battle in the whole war against Obamacare and there may be other ones, too, you know, but this is the nearest one.”
But will they really shut down the government?
“I'm not an advocate for shutting down the government,” Grassley said. “I'm just an advocate for wherever you can fight Obamacare, do it.”
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., said that he hadn't heard as much discussion about the tactic on his side of Capitol Hill but that he expects it to get more attention as time goes on.
“Of course, Republican senators are in the minority there so they can throw the grenades,” Terry said. “Here if we're the ones throwing the grenades we're kind of blowing ourselves up. So I think everyone here realizes that we have a different role to play and it has to be a little bit better thought out.”
Terry added, though, that Republicans shouldn't give up any leverage they have to negotiate with the administration on the issue.
“I don't want to shut down the government, but we need to force them back to the table in some way on Obamacare,” Terry said.