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.
Indeed, GOP ObamaCare-bashing was going to be so much fun, but somehow now the issue has Republicans on the spot. Utah Sen. Mike LeeMike LeeOvernight Finance: Senators spar over Wall Street at SEC pick's hearing | New CBO score for ObamaCare bill | Agency signs off on Trump DC hotel lease GOP senators offer bill to require spending cuts with debt-limit hikes Healthcare fight pits Trump against Club for Growth MORE’s plan, pushed most vocally by Republican Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzUnder pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support Paul: Pence should oversee Senate ObamaCare repeal votes Senators introduce new Iran sanctions MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioSenators introduce new Iran sanctions Senate intel panel has not seen Nunes surveillance documents: lawmakers With no emerging leaders, no clear message, Democrats flounder MORE (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 RyanPaul RyanThe right approach to promoting competition in the health care marketplace GOP rep: Once healthcare bill passes, lawmakers can 'really explain it' Report: Trump regrets backing health plan before pushing for tax reform MORE (R-Wis.) and Sen. Tom CoburnTom CoburnDon't be fooled: Carper and Norton don't fight for DC Coburn: Trump's tweets aren't presidential The road ahead for America’s highways MORE (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 GrahamLindsey GrahamUnder pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support A real national security budget would fully fund State Department Gorsuch rewrites playbook for confirmation hearings MORE (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 McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: General warns State Department cuts would hurt military | Bergdahl lawyers appeal Trump motion | Senators demand action after nude photo scandal Senate lawmakers eye hearing next week for Air Force secretary: report House Intel chairman under fire from all sides MORE (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.