The effort by two Republican senators to defund Obamacare is dead -- at least for now. The fight fired up conservatives, but roiled the party as it dragged on and in the end the question remained: Why didn't more Senate Republicans join the effort. One plausible answer is they didn't feel invited.
True, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, circulated a letter and 14 signed on to his plan to either defund Obamacare or force the federal government to close, most prominently Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. For two weeks in July, Lee vetted the defund-or-shutdown strategy with about a dozen Senate conservatives. He informed the rest of his Republican colleagues of the plan in weekly party lunches, personal emails, a Senate floor speech and in national media interviews.
But in a chamber steeped in tradition and outsize personalities, building a coalition to undertake a major legislative and political endeavor demands a concerted, patient, inside game that involves cultivating relationships, aggressive one-on-one courtship — and a lot of listening. Above all, it requires a senator to refine a proposal until it achieves broad consensus. Asking other senators for help and input is crucial.
A number of Republican senators with impressive conservative voting records told the Washington Examiner that neither Lee nor Cruz consulted them about their strategy to defund the Affordable Care Act through a budget bill that President Obama must sign by Monday to prevent a government shutdown. Rather, Lee and Cruz relied on shaming their GOP colleagues through the media and their alliance with advocacy groups, for whom they cut television ads and raised money.
“I’m not sure there was ever an attempt on their part to gain support,” Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said. "Clearly, their plan was to make a statement and their strategy included only them. And that’s fine; every member of the Senate has the right to speak with an equal voice.”
“I love their vigor and their spirit,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., added. “But to be told we’re not listening by somebody who does not listen, is disconcerting.”
Lee hatched his plan in July soon after Obama unilaterally delayed another portion of the health care law, one requiring employers to provide health insurance to the workers or pay a fine. Lee’s reasoning was that if the White House was conceding that Obamacare wasn’t ready for full implementation by January and granting a reprieve to a chosen constituency, Congress shouldn’t fund the law.
But Republican sources say Lee never personally pitched his plan to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., or other members of the GOP leadership — a move considered standard for rank-and-file members hoping to rally their colleagues behind legislation or a political strategy. Republican senators and aides also say that Lee never sought one-on-one meetings with a broad cross-section of the GOP caucus, another traditional move for any lawmaker seeking support.
Lee spokesman Brian Phillips doesn't dispute lawmakers' complaints. But he ascribed them to backbiting by Republicans who were dismissive of his boss’ plan from the outset and who had no interest in fighting Obamacare in a meaningful way. Phillips said Lee’s plan was born partly out of frustration that there was no plan in place, or even under discussion, to attack or slow down the implementation of Obamacare — either from leadership or anyone else.
“At no time during the two weeks [Lee circulated his strategy] did any member of Senate come up with [an] alternative plan,” Phillips said.
It’s possible none of this would matter if the public had supported a plan to shut down the government to stop Obamacare. It’s also possible that executing an inside game would be less important if the president was prepared to sign defunding legislation, or that there was some other identifiable path to victory. Most lawmakers tend to consider voter sentiment and weigh what is legislatively achievable should they decide to risk their political capital.
But with voters opposed to the defund-or-shutdown strategy despite their misgivings about Obamacare, and Senate Democrats and Obama united in their effort to protect the Affordable Care Act, Lee and Cruz never stood a chance. There was no way to unite all 46 Senate Republicans behind the plan without considerable wooing and a willingness to make tactical and substantive adjustments in the legislation to build consensus.
That Cruz and Lee helped outside groups raise money to support attack ads targeting their fellow Republican senators, and cut television advertisements themselves as a part of that effort, only hardened opposition among a majority of their Republican colleagues. In a key procedural vote Friday — a measure of support for the defunding strategy — only 16 other senators joined with Cruz and Lee, just one more than those who signed his pledge to oppose Obamacare.
“Everything here takes experience, especially when you get into these very difficult issues,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said. “The problem with this episode that we’ve been through, is how do you get to an end result that’s favorable? … The real question is: How do you win?”