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Tempers flare inside GOP as Obamacare defunding fight escalates

GOP Mutineers

On March 13 of this year, Sen. Ted Cruz and 20 Republican co-sponsors offered an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that would "prohibit the use of funds to carry out the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act." With just 45 Republicans in the Senate (there are now 46), and facing united Democratic opposition, the amendment had no chance. "Sen. Cruz and I have been assured that this amendment will fail and Obamacare will move ahead as planned," said Sen. Mike Lee, a co-sponsor. "If that is the will of the Senate, then so be it."

It was the will of the Senate; the amendment failed on a 52-45 vote. But every Republican voted for the Cruz proposal. "I want to thank Sen. Cruz for offering this amendment," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "I strongly support his efforts. … We need to get this bill off the books and straighten out our country. This would be a big step in the direction of achieving that."

Now, Cruz, Lee, and a few other GOP senators are trying again to defund Obamacare, this time urging the Senate to approve a House-passed bill that would fund the government after September 30 while at the same time defunding Obamacare. As in March, there's no chance they will succeed; a united 54-seat Democratic majority and a Democratic White House assure that. Unlike in March, the Senate Republican caucus is deeply divided over what to do.

Indeed, some Republicans who are vehemently opposed to the defunding gambit today voted for it in March. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, for example, has called the current defunding proposal "the dumbest idea I've ever heard." In March, Burr not only voted for defunding; he was a co-sponsor. Another Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn, has denounced the current defunding move as "dishonest" and bound to fail. In March, Coburn co-sponsored the Cruz amendment. Other Republicans — Sens. Johanns, Johnson, Chambliss — who now say defunding won't work were also co-sponsors of the Cruz defunding measure in March.

The change has left some of today's defunders bitterly resentful of their colleagues and former allies. In private conversations, they complain that their fellow Republicans were with them when voting for defunding was easy but have run away when everything is on the line. They could force Majority Leader Harry Reid to give in to their demands, claims one aide working for defunding, "if our leadership was on board with this effort and was willing to fight."

But the fight has become increasingly desperate, and the internal debate among Republicans increasingly sharp. Here is the defunders' dilemma. Senate rules require a cloture vote — that is, a 60-vote margin -- to begin debate and then to limit debate on the continuing resolution that contains the defunding language. If Republicans vote to do both — after all, they support defunding and want it to go forward — then after the vote to limit debate, Majority Leader Harry Reid can propose an amendment to strike the defunding provision. The rules allow that amendment to be passed on a simple majority vote. That means Democrats could strip out the language, and then pass — again, on a simple majority vote — a "clean" spending resolution funding the government but making no change in Obamacare, and send it back to the House.

When Republicans who oppose the defunding gambit pointed out what the rules allow Reid to do, defunding proponents called it a "procedural trick" and came up with an alternative strategy: Yes, Republicans should vote to begin debate on the bill. But they should then vote in a bloc against limiting debate. That would stop dead the entire continuing resolution —including the defunding provision — as the clock ticks toward a possible government shutdown. Nothing could go forward. Republicans would then press Reid to adopt a procedure that would require a 60-vote threshold to pass an amendment striking the defunding provision. At that point, if the Senate's 46 Republicans remain united, Reid's amendment could not pass.

For Republicans who aren't part of the defunding drive, it was a jaw-dropping proposal. We're supposed to filibuster our own bill? they ask. We pushed the House to pass a continuing resolution with a defunding measure attached — and now we're supposed to kill it in the Senate? What sense does that make? And even if it made sense, they say, the plan is simply not possible.

That response has caused deep resentment among defunding proponents. No, they aren't proposing filibustering their own bill. "What we are filibustering is a procedural maneuver by Reid so that he will not be able to gut the bill that we want a vote on," says the aide.

"Our demand is for Reid to do one of two things," the aide continues. "Either agree that all amendments post-cloture have a 60-vote threshold, or bring the amendment up pre-cloture. McConnell can demand those things." Translated into less insidery language, that basically means forcing Reid to adopt a procedure that would allow Republicans, if they stay united, to stop Reid from taking out the Obamacare provision.

The only problem is that Republicans, in the minority, cannot force Reid to do that. "It would require UNANIMOUS consent to change the vote threshold," says one aide opposed to the defunding maneuver. "You really think Reid, Schumer, Bernie Sanders are all going to agree to make it EASY to strip Obamacare? Give me a break. And what leverage will they [the defunders] have to 'force' that? They will have just filibustered their own bill and shut down the government. They will be solely responsible for shutting down the government. Why would a single Democrat lift a finger to help them — much less give away Obamacare?"

That's the defunders' dilemma. And with the time passing and emotions running high, the defunding proponents are running out of options. Their new plan strikes other Republicans as sheer desperation. And they still have the support of just a small minority of their own Republican caucus. More than a month ago, Sen. Lee circulated a letter among his colleagues asking them to pledge to refuse to vote for any government funding bill that includes funding for Obamacare. So far, a grand total of 15 Republicans, out of 46 in the Senate, have signed on. It is extremely unlikely the new Hail Mary plan will garner any more GOP support.

Yes, the Republicans who voted to defund Obamacare back in March would still like to do so. But many of them are firmly convinced the new defunding strategy won't work — indeed, that it can't work. This time, when the vote comes, there will be no Republican unity.