Back on the defensive again


Ah, the August recess. Formerly the sleepy, hot, dull, four-week period (now five weeks) when members of Congress left town and politics became silenced. Those were the good old days — for them, anyway.

Lawmakers left the U.S. Capitol less than a week ago, and already things are far more interesting than when they were here, ahem, legislating. With grassroots armies of activists setting their sights on both Democrats and Republicans who have returned to their districts, those Washington-hating congressmen and -women may soon be counting the days until they can get back to work.

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Democrats are of course dreading having to defend the unpopular healthcare reform law for the fifth year in a row, a journey from drafting to passage and now to implementation that has been an uphill battle at best, if not the most toxic debate of their political careers. But Republicans threw them a surprise bone on their way out of the doors of the Capitol with the trending Tea Party plan to shut the government down unless an impossible request is granted from President Obama: to defund ObamaCare.

Indeed, GOP ObamaCare-bashing was going to be so much fun, but somehow now the issue has Republicans on the spot. Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s plan, pushed most vocally by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), has turned the debate upside-down. Every time a GOP lawmaker talks about the perils of ObamaCare, he or she has to respond to whether or not they are aboard the shut-down express.

Take Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina’s 9th District, for example. He held a town-hall meeting Tuesday night at which he was asked the question, and responded “Do you want the thoughtful answer? No.” That didn’t sit well with the questioner, who informed Pittenger that the law would be defunded if every Republican voted against the spending bill. “That’s a fact,” he added for emphasis, though of course that isn’t true. After surviving a full 40 repeal votes in Congress and being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, Obama’s signature achievement is not being defunded. He would veto any bill that attempted to so and the spending is mandatory anyway. Pittenger tried explaining the mechanics of why, even though he supports defunding the law, it won’t work as the plan advertises. Some woman shouted back at him that the vote is important because “we need to show the American people that we stand for conservative values.”

Standing up for conservative values is something Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) are known for. But like Pittenger and the other Republicans — including the party’s last presidential nominee, Mitt Romney — who oppose Lee and Cruz’s plan, they know the GOP will take the blame for flirting with a shutdown and that it harms the party in the long run.

Since Romney lost the 2012 election, the rift in the GOP has only grown wider. Plans to unite and broaden the tent were long forgotten as the chorus of accusation and blame grew louder and strong new policy disagreements surfaced over national security, immigration reform, gay marriage and now spending as congressional Republicans battle over whether or not to retain or replace the sequester.

What was once described as moderate v. conservative, or Tea Party v. Establishment, has now become problem-solver v. purist. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) declared this week, while challengers rushed to primary him: “I will continue to be Lindsey Graham, a solid fiscal and social conservative who wants to solve problems. That’s the future of the Republican Party.” Graham, just back from a trip to Egypt with Chief Maverick Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on behalf of the president, might not be considered a Republican by many, but “true” Republicans like Coburn and Ryan might also describe themselves that way.

Attempting something that cannot work and exacts a potentially steep price is not solving a problem, and it is pure at best. Lee and Cruz, as hard as they will try this month to galvanize conservatives nationally around their plan, are not likely to get their way. Their intense efforts, however, and the town halls that result in August, will serve as talking points for Democrats for months to come.

Republicans had Democrats on the defensive over ObamaCare. Surely they want to find their way back there.


Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.