By Alexander Bolton - 08/06/13 09:30 PM EDT
Senate conservatives are increasing pressure on Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to use the threat of a government shutdown to defund ObamaCare.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are spearheading the effort to build a “grassroots army” to influence GOP leadership after entreaties to their colleagues fell short.
So far, only 13 Senate Republicans have signed onto a plan to block any stopgap spending measure funding the government beyond Sept. 30 unless it cuts funding for the healthcare law.
Supporters of the push are taking their message directly to the Republican base this month. They are promoting an online petition, http://www.dontfundobamacare.com, that has already gathered 217,578 signatures.
“He’s trying to build a grassroots army over the August recess,” said a GOP aide familiar with Cruz’s strategy.
Cruz plotted strategy with conservatives from the Senate and House shortly before Congress left town.
“If we see in the next 60 days hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans lighting up the phones, calling their House members, calling up their senators and saying, ‘Stand for principle, this isn’t working, it’s destroying the economy, it’s hurting jobs, it’s destroying healthcare, it’s driving up our premiums, defund it,’ that’s how we win,” Cruz told conservative lawmakers at a recent bicameral meeting.
On Friday, Cruz touted the push to defund ObamaCare at a conference of conservative activists in New Orleans hosted by RedState.com, a prominent conservative blog.
At the end of the month he will pound the issue at a conference in Orlando, Fla., sponsored by Americans For Prosperity, a Tea Party group.
Rubio also plans to speak at the Americans For Prosperity event.
Next week, Rubio will seek to build grassroots support for making government funding contingent on unwinding the Affordable Care Act. He has planned public events, speeches and grassroots meetings around the state, according to a Rubio aide.
He appeared on the "Mark Levin Show," a program popular among conservatives, on Monday evening to make his argument.
“I think there’s a question about whether we can be successful on it and people think maybe tactically it’s not the best approach,” Rubio said, describing the reluctance among his GOP colleagues to threaten a government shutdown over the healthcare law.
“There has to be some issue where we say, ‘Look, this is the issue where we draw the line,’” he said. “If that issue is not ObamaCare, I can’t understand what issue it would be, and that’s the point I’ve tried to make.”
Rubio said Republican leaders are not being aggressive enough in their approach to the government funding questions, which will come to a head at the end of September.
GOP leadership has already decided to insist that the government funding measure adheres to the budget caps and automatic cuts implemented by the 2011 Budget Control Act, but they remain undecided on whether to demand the defunding of ObamaCare as well.
“Our ask in return for the short-term budget is basically to keep what’s already in place, and I don’t think that’s a good strategy,” Rubio said.
The concerted effort by Senate conservatives has added to the pressure on McConnell, who is caught in a vice between his duties as Republican leader and his fight to win reelection.
Matt Bevin, who is running against McConnell in the Kentucky Republican primary, taunted him over the weekend for not embracing the Cruz’s and Rubio’s aggressive strategy.
“Be a man,” Bevin goaded McConnell at an annual picnic event in Fancy Farm, Kent.
McConnell told reporters last month that he remains undecided about whether to demand the defunding of the healthcare law in exchange for funding government.
Some Republicans fear a government shutdown would be blamed on their party, recalling the political damage the last shutdown inflicted on the GOP in the mid 1990s.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) called playing chicken over the government funding resolution “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) dismissed the strategy as well. “Most Americans are really tired of those kinds of shenanigans,” he said.
A GOP aide said McConnell has always supported repealing ObamaCare but questions whether his conservative colleagues are pursuing the right tactics.
“People will be signing up for ObamaCare the day after the government shutdown,” the aide said. “McConnell wants to get rid of ObamaCare root and branch.”
The aide noted that a Congressional Research Service report commissioned by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) found a government shutdown would not stop the implementation of the healthcare law.
But Cruz has told conservatives this argument is a “red herring” while accusing critics of misrepresenting his plan.
He has called on the House to pass a continuing resolution funding government with a policy rider that explicitly prohibits the use of discretionary and mandatory funds for setting up healthcare exchanges and other reforms mandated by the law.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has also been active in whipping up the conservative grassroots.
He explained the plan to defund ObamaCare in a recent appearance on the Rush Limbaugh show. Lee argued pressure to defund the law has to come from outside the Beltway.
“There would be no way that you could fund ObamaCare unless you got some Republicans in the House and some Republicans in the Senate to vote for it,” Lee said. “And so that's why we're encouraging people to get behind this effort, to communicate with their congressman and their senators and to say, ‘Please don't do this.’ ”