Can Republicans Actually Defund Obamacare?

Ever since the Obama administration announced its plans to delay the implementation of the employer mandate, efforts from Republicans to “defund” Obamacare have intensified. The plan, which is being pushed aggressively by conservatives in the House and Senate, would attach an amendment to strip funding for Obamacare to the continuing resolution (CR) which continues funding the government. The thinking behind this plan is that offering funding for the entire government, while excluding Obamacare, basically puts the Democrats in the position of having to vote for it again. And if it were not to pass, the government would shut down — all because the Democrats insist on funding an unpopular law. Most vocal on this front have been Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.

Cruz and Lee have gotten lots of support from a former senator who is considered by many to be the mentor of the “Senate conservatives.” Jim DeMint, who now heads the Heritage Foundation, is using the think-tank’s grass roots mobilization arm, Heritage Action, to aggressively push the plan. DeMint, as well as Cruz, at town hall events across the country, have said that this is the “last chance” to get rid of Obamacare. What this means is that the “benefits” of the plan are slated to begin soon, with most of the law taking effect January 1, 2014. Repealing a law is easier before people start enjoying its positive aspects; when they do, it is much harder politically to take those things away from them.

But can the GOP actually defund Obamacare?

With every passing day, while the momentum behind the “Defund It” movement grows, it seems more and more unlikely. A majority in the House, where the Republicans maintain a 234–201 edge, needs to be achieved without the expectation of a single Democratic vote. That would mean Republicans in the House need to support the plan by a 218–16 margin. As of this writing, only 80 members of the House have committed to supporting some sort of defund effort.

In the Senate as well, the move to strip the bill of its funding seems doomed to fail. While only 40 votes are needed to filibuster, and the Republicans control 46 seats, a majority would be needed to pass the CR, meaning four Democrats would need to cross over and support it. But Cruz’s game plan, which he is pushing using the catchphrase “Don’t Blink,” is to filibuster a CR that would provide funding. Even this, however, is doomed to fail. Already six Republican Senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have indicated that they oppose the Cruz-Lee plan. Another five, after having signed a letter from Lee calling for defunding Obamacare, withdrew their signatures.

The facts seem to indicate that, barring some unforeseen game-changing occurrence, the defund plan is doomed to fail. The final blow to this plan was struck when House Speaker John Boehner said that the House would only consider a CR that didn’t include a defund amendment. The politics of a government shutdown, which always seems to be blamed on Republicans, is not something GOP leadership feels would be a winner in the long or short run.

So why, then, do Cruz and DeMint still aggressively push it?

The truth is that even without successfully defunding Obamacare, there are two angles that make it a winner for Republicans in general and Senator Cruz in particular. For Cruz, the best possible result is the one that is unfolding. Were all Republicans to agree to the defund plan, it would inevitably lead to a government shutdown. President Obama, who has only Obamacare to his credit as a major legislative achievement, has almost no incentive to scrap it. On top of that, a recent poll by GOP pollster David Winston found that among people who said that they plan on voting for a Republican in 2014, a shutdown is opposed by a 51–40 margin. Essentially, as Winston said, this would create a disincentive for these people to vote Republican. In other words, a shutdown is the absolute worst thing that could happen for Republicans, as it won’t lead to the end of the law or be an electoral winner for the party.

What it does accomplish, however, is help Cruz position himself as the “true conservative” in the upcoming race for president. While his is the most visible face on this, the only Obamacare repeal that is actually getting media coverage, he gets to boost his credibility with primary voters. The fact that there is considerable pushback from “Establishment” Republicans only serves to bolster his candidacy. Essentially, this only serves to further Cruz’s standing against the Chris Christie types in the primary field.

The other, more important function of pushing defunding regardless of its ability to pass is its value electorally. The president’s health-care law is still very unpopular; the most recent Real Clear Politics average has public opinion decidedly against the bill by a 51–39 margin. The chances of the GOP widening its margin in the House, and possibly picking up the Senate, hinges on the ability to make the election a referendum on Obamacare, just as it was in 2010.

It isn’t like 2010, however, in that Obamacare no longer has a natural drive that compels people to vote Republican. By starting this loud and ongoing effort to actually do something about Obamacare, Republicans nationally benefit because the electorate will have something tangible in the election season with which to contrast the two parties. That is a benefit over which it is worth having this fight.