How the ObamaCare defunding fight became a political showdown

The fight over defunding ObamaCare is a fight conservatives have spent months itching for. 

But few thought it could have intensified so fast, especially after President Obama’s reelection triumph, and Democrats picked up seats in both chambers of Congress last November.

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Willingness to shut down the federal government over ObamaCare has become a litmus test for some in the right wing. Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin jumped on the bandwagon Tuesday, and GOP leaders are suddenly finding themselves on the hot seat from activists and primary challengers accusing them of “surrendering” to ObamaCare.

So, how did we get here? Republicans have been unified in their staunch opposition to the Affordable Care Act since 2009, before it even passed. After a seemingly endless churn of anti-ObamaCare votes in the House, how did this particular strand of opposition come to dominate the headlines — and divide the GOP?

Putting the threat of a government shutdown on the table obviously raised the stakes. But that threat, and the polarizing intra-GOP fight over how best to fight ObamaCare, didn’t materialize overnight.

Conservative activists, led by organizers at FreedomWorks and Heritage Action, have been plotting this strategy for months knowing full well it would meet steep resistance from GOP leaders.

The following is a timeline of how the debate unfolded.

February: First try

This isn’t the first time conservatives have tried to use a continuing resolution (CR), an omnibus spending bill to keep the government running, to attack ObamaCare. A host of conservative organizations signed a letter in February that said conservatives shouldn’t vote for the March CR unless it left budget cuts in place and defunded ObamaCare.

But the fight over spending levels overshadowed healthcare, and in March the spending bill passed with 20 Republican votes in the Senate and no provision stopping Obama from implementing his signature healthcare law.

March: Regrouping

Some conservatives say their contemporaries were too focused on using must-pass bills, like the CR and the extension of the debt limit, to extract bigger and bigger spending cuts and trying to balance the budget.

But FreedomWorks arranged a private meeting in March with Heritage Action, the Club for Growth and a handful of other “leading groups,” FreedomWorks Vice President of Public Policy Dean Clancy said. The message: Must-pass bills should be the vehicle for refighting ObamaCare.

“At the time, no one really warmed to the strategy,” Clancy said. “They were still talking about trying to use a must-pass bill to achieve balance in 10 years, a la the Ryan Budget. But our idea of making the next round about health care grew on them as implementation approached.”

Dan Holler, the communications director at Heritage Action, also said conservatives embraced the strategy more as full implementation grew closer.

“The difference between then and now is Oct. 1 — and when the exchanges open for enrollment, that’s what the Obama administration considers the beginning of ObamaCare,” Holler said. “The stuff in the past was sort of theoretical.”

July: Implementation stumble; Senators sign on

“Within a couple of months repeal or defunding had become a frequently mentioned item on the list of possible Republican demands,” Clancy said. “By early July, it was a fully formed strategy.”

On July 2, the Obama administration announced that it was delaying the ObamaCare employer mandate for one year. That stunning announcement came in the wake of a few other implementation problems.

Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took the lead, advancing the defunding push through conservative media. Rubio’s involvement provided significant momentum. Some have seen Rubio’s role in defunding ObamaCare as a way to appease aspects of the GOP base that have ripped him on immigration.

July 9: Lee put Republicans on the spot in an interview with the Washington Examiner.

“Our current CR expires at the end of September, and so, every Republican is going to have a chance to weigh in on whether or not they’re okay with ObamaCare — whether or not they're willing to fund it. I think any Republican who agrees to fund ObamaCare this time around is going to have a hard time explaining that to voters,” he said.

July 11: “I believe that we should not vote [for] nor pass a continuing resolution unless that continuing resolution defunds ObamaCare,” Rubio said at a breakfast organized by the Weekly Standard.

July 11: Cruz and Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) introduced a bill to rescind all of the money appropriated so far for ObamaCare implementation and prevent the administration from using any future appropriations to implement the law.

Although the defunding bill has been around for years, it provided a vehicle to help keep conservatives focused on defunding, rather than repeal and delay.

“When Cruz-Graves got introduced, that’s when things really started ramping up,” Holler said.

July 23: Heritage Action encouraged lawmakers to sign on to Lee’s letter urging GOP leaders not to pass a continuing resolution unless it bans the administration from using any money to implement ObamaCare. Lee said he had 11 signatures and support was growing.

As July progressed, conservatives kept up the pressure, and as their plan got more attention in the media, it also started to attract more criticism from the GOP ranks.

July 25: Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said shutting down the government over ObamaCare is “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

“I think some of these guys need to understand that you shut down the federal government, you better have a specific reason to do it that’s achievable,” Burr continued.

July 26: Establishment Republicans, including Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and John McCain (Ariz.), criticized the defunding push, saying the shutdown during the Clinton administration taught them that Congress typically gets the blame.

Refusing to pass a spending bill and forcing a government shutdown would not itself cut off funds for ObamaCare implementation. Most of that money has already been provided. The conservatives’ strategy depends on Obama agreeing to give up on his signature domestic achievement.

August: GOP divide intensifies

The House cast another symbolic anti-ObamaCare vote just before heading home for its monthlong recess. And as lawmakers have made the town-hall circuit in their districts, the internal GOP divisions over defunding have only gotten deeper.

Party leaders have voiced their support for the general idea of defunding ObamaCare, but they haven’t said they’re willing to shut down the government in an effort to force Obama’s hand. That’s a crucial question, though, and conservatives have started lambasting anti-shutdown Republicans as the “surrender caucus.”

The threat has grown more and more popular with conservative pundits and talk radio hosts, and more conservative advocacy groups have joined in. Brent Bozell, the chairman of the advocacy group For America, said he got involved about three weeks ago, after meeting with the senators leading the push.

Activist groups are hoping to pressure House leaders into insisting on defunding in the House continuing resolution, which they then hope will translate into support in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“When it comes time for a serious vote, off to the tall grass they run … I think leadership at this point is tone deft or just flat out cowards,” Bozell said.

Many Republicans still say defunding is the wrong approach. ObamaCare funding would not be cut off during the shutdown — the strategy can only succeed if Obama agrees to sign a bill eviscerating his signature legislative achievement.

“I think he’d rather give you his liver,” Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said.

Norquist, like many other Republicans, prefers a message focused on delaying the law. A government shutdown is unpopular in public opinion polls, and it’s risky. But delays in the healthcare law’s implementation gave Republicans an easy opening to argue that the law is unworkable.

The defunding debate has weakened the party’s anti-ObamaCare message, Norquist said.

“It distracts from the winning argument that we have,” he said.

Defunding supporters aren’t convinced.

“Giving ObamaCare more time to get its inner workings right isn’t a good thing,” Holler said.