How the Tea Party is winning the GOP fight over ObamaCare

Republican moderates find themselves in a familiar position

John Boehner hasn't exactly rallied the troops behind him.
(Image credit: (Getty Images/Alex Wong))

Congressional Republicans have battled each other of late over which tack to take in handling the next showdown over the budget. The Tea Party wing of the party has refused to support any budget bill unless it kills ObamaCare, while the more moderate leadership, wary of the political fallout from such an all-or-nothing gamble, has resisted the plan.

It looks like the Tea Party just won round one.

House Republicans will soon stage a vote on a budget bill — known as a continuing resolution (CR) — that both funds the government and defunds the Affordable Care Act, according to National Review's Robert Costa. This means that far-right conservatives "have won a victory, at least in terms of getting the leadership to go along with their strategy," Costa wrote.

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House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) spokesman said that "no decisions" have been made regarding the CR vote. But the fact that the bill is even up for consideration underscores how effective the Tea Party has been in bulldozing the rest of the party on such a fraught issue.

Assuming a CR bill defunding ObamaCare passes the House, it would surely die in the Democratic-controlled Senate. And even if it were to somehow pass the upper chamber, it has absolutely zero chance of getting past President Obama's desk.

Washington's fiscal year comes to a close at the end of the month. If there is no deal by then, the government will shut down all nonessential services. While that would be less calamitous than a previously floated idea to tie ObamaCare to the debt ceiling, linking a vote to defund ObamaCare to the budget would nonetheless be a bold line in the sand, drawn at the behest of a small, vocal corner of the party.

So how did we get here?

Over the summer, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other allied lawmakers began rallying support for a defund-or-bust movement without conferring with House leadership. There was "zero" communication between the two groups, one GOP leadership aide told Jpnathan Strong, also of National Review.

That disconnect was exacerbated when party leaders opted to not take a position on the issue, allowing the defund movement to gain steam and attention, such that the party's right flank began to see it as a viable option.

Here's Strong:

But as [GOP leadership] tried to gingerly tamp down enthusiasm at the end of July before lawmakers left for the August recess, they refused to take a public position on the matter, repeatedly telling members and the press that "no decisions have been made." Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.], currently facing a primary challenger, also did not take a position, and still hasn't.

Aides to both Boehner and McConnell actually intervened to ensure that comments both of their bosses made did not actually amount to taking a position. [National Review]

It's the same dynamic that has played out in past battles, with Boehner desperately trying to appease the howling from the right without simultaneously driving the party too far from the middle. Now three years removed from the 2010 midterms that swept Tea Party lawmakers into Congress, the right wing of the party has only grown more wary of the established leadership, making the likelihood of a deal amenable to both sides increasingly difficult to imagine. Things have gotten so bad that Boehner has taken to publicly begging Obama to delay his signature domestic policy achievement.

House GOP leadership had wanted to stage separate votes on the continuing resolution and defunding ObamaCare, but that compromise plan ran into stiff resistance, with conservatives lamenting what they viewed as spineless caving by the party brass.

"If House Republicans go along with this strategy," Cruz warned, "they will be complicit in the disaster that is ObamaCare."

With opposition to that plan mounting, House leadership delayed a vote on it.

"They're screwing us," one GOP aide told Politico of the right's success in postponing a vote.

Polls elucidate why Boehner has been so reluctant to burn his party's detractors. A Pew survey out Monday found that only 43 percent of all Republicans wanted their representatives to "make the law fail." However, 64 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers expressed that sentiment.

As was the case with the Republican wave in 2010, apocalyptic ObamaCare outrage, though confined to a small segment of the electorate, is vocal enough to force the party into taking a hard right turn.

"It has been a massive uprising," Matt Hoskins of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has been building support for the defunding crowd, told National Review. "We've done a lot of petition drives over the years, but nothing has ever gotten as much traction."

Given the prospect of a damaging debt default a mere month after a government shutdown, there have been calls for Boehner to finally stand up to his party's intransigent base — to "rip off the Band Aid" as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent put it.

Salon's Brian Beutler suggested that a forced shutdown would be "akin to spiking an addict's stash in the hope of hastening rock bottom — a novel but extremely risky strategy when all other attempts at intervention have failed."

But Beutler wrote that there is a better move for Boehner and company:

The obvious right play would be for Boehner to lead. Cut the Tea Party loose. Fund the government. Increase the debt limit. Move on.

Letting the government shut down might work, too. But it also might not last long enough to tame his conference before a much larger bill comes due. Which is why Boehner will probably do what he's done all year when faced with immovable deadlines: Wait until the last minute, break the Hastert Rule, live to fight another day. Unfortunately for everyone who's not a House Republican hard-liner, that day will come less than a month later. [Salon]