By Erik Wasson and Peter Schroeder - 09/16/13 10:00 AM EDT
A weakened President Obama will back down if there is a standoff over funding ObamaCare and preventing a government shutdown, House conservatives say. [WATCH VIDEO]
At least 43 conservatives want the GOP leadership to go for broke, asserting that Obama has been damaged by stumbles over Syria and by several delays in implementing the Affordable Care Act.
The GOP’s internal battle pits lawmakers who want the party to take a calculated risk against leaders who fear it would be a big losing bet.
Democrats say there is no chance that they or the president will agree to hollow-out their signature domestic achievement.
The White House did not comment for this story, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week said the Senate would reject any attempt to defund the law.
Still, the GOP’s roll-the-dice faction is undaunted.
“I think the president’s too weak to shut the government down … I think we will win,” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) said.
“Syria has hurt him significantly … it is a factor in the CR going forward, it is a factor in the debt ceiling,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said.
Conservatives cite recent polling to buttress their case. Following Obama’s aborted attempt to get congressional backing for an attack on Syria, Fox News found public disapproval of Obama’s job performance at an all-time high of 54 percent and his approval rating at 40 percent, equal to his all-time low.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said the 41 votes the House has taken so far to end all or part of the healthcare law were like exhibition games by comparison to the battle about to commence.
“We’ve never put it on truly must-pass legislation,” he complained.
Conservatives bucked party leaders last week, rejecting a plan to advance a three-month spending package that merely offered the Senate the option of defunding the president’s healthcare law.
The plan would have allowed Senate Republicans to go on the record against the healthcare law, but would also have permitted Democrats to shoot down that separate ObamaCare resolution while advancing the spending package to avert a shutdown.
GOP leaders put the plan on hold after the conservative backlash and, late last week, were seeking a new approach.
Hardline defunders also highlight a CNN/ORC International poll earlier this month that found support for ObamaCare ebbing away. Just 39 percent of the public favor all or most its provisions, down from 51 percent in January.
“To assume that they won’t yield is making the assumption that Democrats will not listen to their constituents back home. And I disagree with that. Because the American people realize that it’s not ready for prime time,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said.
But conservatives may not carry the day even within the GOP.
Republicans from swing states worry that a government shutdown on Oct. 1 would severely damage the party and spark Obama to rally.
They, too, cite polling evidence. The recent CNN poll found that 51 percent of people would blame Republicans for a shutdown, compared to just a third who would blame the president.
“Some seem to think, well, then the Democrats are going to get blamed. I think most of the American people are going to blame us. I think a majority of our conference thinks that,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), a Boehner ally.
“They’re all about talking points, and looking strong,” said Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), referring to his colleagues who opposed the leadership’s plan. “These guys who are trying to second-guess and looking at short-term grandstanding are going to find out that they’re going to be isolated in the long run.”
Still, members from deeply conservative districts say there is increasing pressure to take a stand. Many returned to Washington after the five-week recess telling tales of outrage over ObamaCare among constituents, and believing that the public will side with them if they force a confrontation.
“ObamaCare: You mention that and it’s like lightning,” Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said that liberal media would try to blame any shutdown on the GOP, but the risk is still worth taking.
“What would I prefer to do? Fight!” he said. “There’s a skepticism among Republicans that we never, ever seem to get to the next fight.”
King said that if the decision is made to stand and fight, the party must unify around a message of blaming Obama for any consequent shutdown. The White House has said it will reject any spending package that includes provisions targeting the healthcare reform law.
“The House doesn’t want to shut the government down. It’s Harry Reid and the president that are gleeful at the thought of being able to force such a situation. If the public understands that, then the onus is on them, not on us,” he said.
Other conservatives said the Senate would feel the public pressure to pass the House language, or else it would be held culpable for a shutdown.
“I’d love to see the Senate do that,” said Stutzman, referring to a situation where Senate Democrats reject a spending package that includes a provision attacking ObamaCare. “If they want to do that, go home and defend that, go ahead! They’re getting an earful too!”
“If we send a bill over to the Senate that defunds a part of the law and they refuse, you tell me who shuts the government down,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said. “The question is, can we deliver the message?”
But centrist members and some leadership aides worry this gambit would be doomed to backfire. Boehner might end up having to go to Democrats to pass a CR, they fear, giving Obama’s party leverage to push for more spending.
“We’re leaving town now and I don’t know that leadership knows [what it’s going to do], to be honest with you,” said Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) at the week’s end. “I assume that we will probably do something at the last minute like a clean CR at sequester levels and try to get some Dems.”
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said he worried Wall Street would get antsy about the uncertainty over a shutdown and default when federal borrowing hits its debt ceiling in mid-October.
Old House bulls shake their heads over the dispute and say the public should not be concerned that the government will actually shut down.
“Like the biblical saying, ‘This too shall pass,’ ” Appropriations Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said.
Bernie Becker contributed to this report