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Politics & Government

GOP Plan To Link Spending Bill, Health Law Cuts Took Months


The government shutdown was a plan months in the making, the brainchild of a constellation of dozens of conservative groups - that according to a report in yesterday's New York Times. It describes a conservative blueprint that linked funding the government with undoing Obamacare. Sheryl Gay Stolberg co-wrote the New York Times piece and joins me now. Welcome to the program.

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: Thank you. Happy to be here.

BLOCK: And let's start with that blueprint to defunding Obamacare. When was it hatched and who was involved in that?

STOLBERG: Well, the blueprint grew out of a meeting of a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led at the time by former Attorney General Edwin Meese. They met shortly after President Obama took office for his second term, and they were frustrated that the push to repeal President Obama's health care bill was really going nowhere so they needed a new strategy. Conservatives had long been talking about the idea of defunding Obamacare, stripping it of its federal funding for implementation. And out of that meeting grew this memo, a blueprint to defunding Obamacare.

BLOCK: And what did that memo lay out?

STOLBERG: Well, it laid out a very aggressive legislative strategy by which conservative Republicans were supposed to press their fellow Republicans and their leaders not to approve what we call in Washington a CR, a continuing resolution, to fund the federal government. So when the CR - it's a short-term budget spending bill - was to expire, these conservatives were going to say we won't approve another one unless it stops funding for the health bill.

BLOCK: You quote one of the members of this, this coalition of conservative groups that you're talking about, Michael Needham, who runs Heritage Action for America, saying they knew they needed to use the power of the purse. He said this was a fight that we were going to pick.

STOLBERG: That's right. You know, conservatives feel very, very strongly about this bill and have felt strongly about - really it's a law and not a bill anymore - since President Obama signed it into law in 2010. They feel that it is an expansion of the federal government. They don't like it. They think it's a drag on the economy. They want to undo it by any means possible.

BLOCK: You try to follow the money behind the push to defund or to repeal the health care law. How much money were you able to trace back as being behind this push?

STOLBERG: We did trace back at least $200 million to causes and groups interested in undoing the bill in one way or another. Some of the money - or a lot of it - comes from the Koch brothers, the two industrialists, Charles and David Koch. Interestingly, while they have given money to groups that want to defund Obamacare, their push actually seems to be to try to sow seeds of doubt about the bill, to try to undo it in another way, to use a different tactic.

BLOCK: Now one of these groups, Americans for Prosperity, whom you talked with, said, look, the other side is hugely well-funded. They actually said this is David versus Goliath. They're going up against a huge organization pushing the health care law, including companies from the health care industry.

STOLBERG: Yeah. I think that's important to remember. You know, there is also a liberal apparatus designed to support the health care bill. Enroll America, which is allied with the Obama White House, is spending lots of money to go out and try to persuade millions of people to sign up. And, of course, the health insurance industry, which benefits greatly from this bill by selling its products on the online insurance exchanges, is spending money to the tune of about a billion dollars to try to persuade people just to buy insurance. So that's not really in direct support of the bill or trying to shape public opinion about it. But nonetheless, it's an effort to make this law succeed by getting people to sign up.

BLOCK: In trying to link defunding the Affordable Care Act to the government appropriations process, are they breaking new ground here or is this something that's been tried and has succeeded before?

STOLBERG: Defunding is not an entirely new tactic in Washington. For years, Congress has refused to use federal money to pay for certain abortions, for instance, except in cases of rape or incest, with an amendment called the Hyde Amendment, which it has attached repeatedly to appropriations bills. But what's new about this, I think, is that it is defunding on such a massive scale. I don't think we've seen before an effort to defund an entire federal program, much less one as sweeping and ambitious as the health care law.

BLOCK: Sheryl Gay Stolberg is Washington correspondent for the New York Times. Sheryl, thanks so much.

STOLBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.