Republicans claim unity despite divergence on healthcare reform defunding

The issue came to a head earlier this month when conservative Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Steve King (R-Iowa) urged House leaders to reject any budget bills that don't prohibit both annual appropriations for healthcare reform as well as the mandatory spending called for in the law for 2011 and future years. That strategy risks a government shutdown, however, as the Democratic-led Senate has made it clear it won't support such continuing resolutions.

"If we do not stand our ground on the CR, leverage it as the 'must pass bill' that it is ... ObamaCare will be implemented on our watch," Bachmann and King wrote. "We will also have conceded a significant amount of ground on this issue and will find it difficult, if not impossible, to regain that strategic advantage in future legislative vehicles."

Bachmann and King were among the 54 Republicans who voted against a temporary budget bill that keeps the government open through April 8 while still funding healthcare reform; Price and Cassidy voted for it.

"I think we can all say that from a Republican perspective there is an end-point, which is we would like to repeal and replace," Cassidy said. "There are different paths to get there. I am confident that our leadership is seeking to get there, and I'm willing to give them deference as to how we do so."

He added that some of the mandatory spending called for in the law doesn't take place for several years, giving Republicans a chance to repeal some of it in their 2012 budget.

Price concurred.

"Our budget, I think, will once again define a strong support for non-funding of the legislation," Price said. "It is a work in progress, but my suspicion is the debt ceiling will include the same kind of legislation."

The pair added that the House's January vote to repeal the law was a meaningful stab because it paved the way for the law's demise in the Senate.

"We think that the House action will continue to bring focus to this and hopefully allow the American people to contact their senators," Price said. "With 23 of them on the other side of the aisle up for reelection [in 2012], if they're listening to their constituents like we're listening to our constituents, we may get to a critical mass at some point and be able to move something."

Cassidy also said the ball is in the Senate's court.

"We are sent [to Congress] not as dictators, we are sent there to represent," he said. "As our Democratic senator colleagues understand that more and more, we anticipate that they will move more and more toward a repeal-and-replace option as opposed to 'dig in and defend it at all costs.' "

There's no evidence of that happening, however: Senate Democrats earlier this year unanimously voted against repeal. Since then, no Democratic senators have publicly changed their stance, even if several have floated alternatives to the law's individual mandate.