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Some GOP Senators Want To Use Shutdown To 'Defund' Obamacare


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Now, to one storm brewing in Congress right now. It's about the funding of government operations and the health care law. It's less a feud between parties as one within the Republican Party.

NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith explains.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The most significant parts of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, take effect Jan. 1st. Congressional spending authority to keep the government open for business runs out at the end of September and will need to be extended. And this is where conservatives both inside and outside of Congress see an opportunity. About a dozen Senate Republicans have signed onto a letter that says they will not support any legislation that funds the government if it doesn't also de-fund Obamacare.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: We have a chance to stop this, and it may be our last best chance. And it comes in September, when we have to pass a short-term budget in this chamber.

KEITH: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is leading the charge, along with senators Mike Lee of Utah, and Ted Cruz of Texas. Rubio spoke in favor of the strategy on the Senate floor.

RUBIO: To my Republican colleagues, I would just say this - if we're not going to draw a line in the sand on Obamacare, we have no lines in this sand. If this issue is not important enough for us to draw a line in the sand, what issue is?

KEITH: There's a reason he was appealing directly to his Republican colleagues. A handful who originally signed on to the letter have withdrawn their support. And others are quite vocally ridiculing the idea.

SEN. BOB CORKER: Oh, I think it's a silly effort.

SEN. RICHARD BURR: I think it's the dumbest idea I've ever heard of.

SEN. TOM COBURN: It's not achievable. If it were - hey, I'd be up leading the charge if I thought it was achievable.

KEITH: Those were senators Bob Corker on MSNBC, Richard Burr on the "Takeaway" from WNYC, and Oklahoma's Tom Coburn. Today, Coburn's office released a memo from the Congressional Research Service that says Obamacare would continue even if there were a government shutdown.

COBURN: I think you got to have a cogent plan to try to affect what you can affect and it has to be realistic.

KEITH: And with President Obama still in the White House, Arizona Sen. John McCain describes what his fellow Republicans are seeking as futile.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: No one believes until we have 60 votes, Republican votes in the Senate, that Obamacare will be repealed. So I don't understand how it's possible to do it.

KEITH: And he says trying by essentially threatening a government shutdown would hurt the party and its electoral chances going forward, putting a 60-vote majority even further out of reach.

MCCAIN: When you push our agenda, the reality is the American people will blame the Congress and the people who are responsible for shutting down the Grand Canyon and the Washington Monument.

KEITH: On this, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid agrees with McCain. Here's the Nevada Democrat in a floor speech yesterday.

SEN. HARRY REID: I would suggest any of my Republican colleagues has this idea, give a call to Newt Gingrich. He'll return your phone calls. Ask him how it worked. It was disastrous for Newt Gingrich, the Republicans and the country.

KEITH: Gingrich was speaker in the mid-'90s when budget battles forced two government shutdowns.

This ongoing debate among Republicans is just the latest example of a rift between the conservative Tea Party wing and establishment Republicans. A bunch of outside groups are pushing hard, including Heritage Action.

DAN HOLLER: What we're saying, and what a lot of conservatives are saying, is you have to take action before the law really becomes entrenched on January 1st.

KEITH: Dan Holler is a spokesman for the group, which was among more than 50 to sign onto a letter urging leaders to defund Obamacare, as part of any government spending bills.

HOLLER: These senators are going to go back home and they're going to be asked do you stand with Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, or do you stand with John McCain. And if you're talking to a conservative audience and you don't answer I stand with Ted Cruz and Mike Lee on defunding Obamacare, you're going to have a whole lot of explaining to do to your constituents.

KEITH: The August recess begins this weekend, and Sen. Ted Cruz says he's counting on constituents to help him win the day.

REID: If 41 Republicans stand together in the Senate or 218 Republicans stand together in the House, we can win this fight. We can defund Obamacare in its entirety. But the only way that's going to happen is if the American people stand together and demand it.

KEITH: It seems the odds are long to get those kinds of numbers. But Cruz says there are still more than 60 days left to make the case.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.