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Red-state Senate Dems never folded during shutdown


On the eve of the since-concluded 16-day government shutdown, Republicans who wanted to defund Obamacare through a government funding bill were optimistic they could pressure Senate Democrats from red states to join their effort.

After all, the Affordable Care Act remained relatively unpopular, particularly in the GOP-leaning states these Democratic senators represent. Some of those senators are up for re-election next year, and many congressional Republicans thought they would fold in the heat of a shutdown defined by the Democrats’ refusal to retreat on Obamacare.

But just as a “grass roots tsunami” never materialized to demand that President Obama scale back the health care law and end the shutdown on the Republicans’ terms, neither did red state Senate Democrats jump ship. Even as House Republicans softened their proposal to curtail Obamacare and forced the Senate to take tough political votes on legislation that would have partially reopened the government, these Democrats never wavered.

Sen. Mark Pryor is one of them.

The Arkansas Democrat is a top Republican target in the 2014 elections, facing a challenge from Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. Republicans already ousted Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln in 2010 because of her support for Obamacare and polls show Pryor is vulnerable for the same reason. But the senator said it has never occurred to him to abandon his support for the law, even during the government shutdown.

“I always try to be consistent on my votes,” Pryor told the Washington Examiner. “You can’t go back and change all that. And actually, I feel like those votes were good for Arkansas.”

Conservative groups and GOP lawmakers behind the strategy to defund Obamacare in recent budget negotiations based their game plan on three pillars: Enlisting voter support; uniting congressional Republicans and picking off politically vulnerable Senate Democrats. After the government shuttered, the defunders urged the Republican House to pass targeted funding bills that would reopen select agencies and to dare a Democratic Senate to extend the shutdown just to protect Obamacare.

The strategy failed. The voters rejected the defund tactic en mass, as polling leading up the government shutdown suggested they would. House Republicans united behind defunding, but Senate Republicans were split. And Senate Democrats remained united in their opposition to defunding, escaping political fallout because voters mostly blamed Republicans for the shutdown.

House Republicans concede that they were surprised that red state Senate Democrats, especially those running for re-election in 2014, stuck with Obama and their leadership on what could prove next November to be very costly votes. House Republicans sent bills to delay Obamacare’s individual mandate and repeal the medical device tax, which several Senate Democrats support, plus legislation to end the unpopular employer health care contribution for members of Congress and staff.

But these Democrats said agreeing to Republican demands to alter the health care law — even in a manner they might otherwise support — would have legitimized the shutdown tactic, which they considered an unacceptable way to govern. Democrats also said that they don't feel the political pressure to drop their support for Obamacare given the results of the 2012 elections, when Obama won re-election and Democrats gained two Senate seats.

“I have a lot of criticisms of the health care law. But holding something hostage when we have important work to do … it was just absolutely the wrong form,” said Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who won a North Dakota seat last year as an Obamacare supporter even though Obama got hammered in the red state by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Heitkamp said her office received a few angry telephone calls during the shutdown urging her to join the defunders and oppose the Affordable Care Act. But she said she simply reminded constituents that she campaigned, and won, as an Obamacare supporter.

“Take a look at what happened to all of us during an election,” Heitkamp said. “If they could say ‘Obamacare’ one more time in any kind of television ads. … This is totally consistent with what I told the people of my state when I was elected and I think that was the miscalculation.”