Senator Ted Cruz speaks at a news conference with conservative congressional Republicans who persuaded the House leadership to include defunding the Affordable Care Act legislation to prevent a government shutdown. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The House of Representatives voted this morning for a short-term spending bill that would strip all funding for Obamacare, pushing the government down an uncertain path toward shutdown. Next, Republicans will refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless the law is gutted.
These moves won’t have any real effect on Obamacare, and they come against the judgment of party leaders and public opinion. President Obama won’t sign either piece of legislation even if it passes the Senate. Far more threatening to healthcare reform is the aggressive, localized campaign to sabotage the law’s implementation.
The fracas in Washington will probably cost the Republican Party far more than anyone else. Meanwhile, it’s making a lot of money for the conservatives who started it all.
* * *
On a Thursday evening in late August, in the ballroom of a Double Tree hotel outside Wilmington, Delaware, Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s father Rafael rallied a few hundred conservatives to his son’s chief cause, the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act. “They can take our lives, they can take our fortunes,” the Cuban-born pastor shouted, wagging a finger at the crowd, which whistled and cheered. “But they cannot take our honor! No one can take our honor.”
It was the last stop of the Heritage Action Fund’s Defund Obamacare tour, a nine-city whipping-up of Tea Party fury designed to pressure congressional Republicans into a budget showdown over the health care law. Former Senator Jim DeMint, now the head of the Heritage Foundation, impressed upon the crowd the need to break the law before October 1, when the insurance exchanges open for enrollment. “If there’s ever been anything worth fighting for in the political arena, it’s this,” he said. “This is our time to stop it…. This is a winnable battle.”
His crusade seemed quixotic then. Only a handful of conservative members of Congress had signed the pledge to walk away from any spending bill or debt-ceiling deal that left Obamacare intact. Party leadership dismissed the Defunders, wary of being blamed for a government shutdown or a default. “Do you want to risk the full faith and credit of the US government over Obamacare?” House Speaker John Boehner asked in March. “That’s a very tough argument to make.”
Outside the Double Tree, a small group smoking cigarettes around a trashcan was more optimistic. “I think everybody that was there is motivated to do something,” mused a woman named Pat. “We’re losing the country.” They felt they were losing the Republican Party, too. “They’re weenies,” a man named Joe said about the leaders. “They’re really Democrats called Republicans,” Pat added. Joe again: “Democrat-lites.” He paused to consider. “They’re French Republicans!”
Two weeks later, spines in Washington have stiffened—really, they’ve bowed to the hard right. Boehner was forced to withdraw a short-term spending bill with a nonbinding rider that stripped funding from Obamacare when conservatives balked at a vote they said was merely symbolic. It’s no surprise House Republicans are tired of such gestures, after voting more than forty times to repeal or delay the law with nothing to show but a cost upwards of $50 million to taxpayers. The continuing resolution that passed the House on Friday defunds the healthcare law, and Republicans will now set to work on a bill to raise the debt ceiling for another year’s worth of borrowing, contingent also upon the demise of the ACA, as well as expedited construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and other Democratic non-starters.