WASHINGTON Republicans in Congress are divided over whether to use the threat of a government shutdown to defund the president’s health care law, and the split is nowhere more evident than in North Carolina.
Some Republicans who have always opposed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and voted against it – Sen. Richard Burr and Reps. Renee Ellmers of Dunn, Robert Pittenger of Charlotte and Patrick McHenry of Western North Carolina – oppose the shutdown threat.
Meanwhile, freshman Rep. Mark Meadows, whose district is west and north of McHenry’s, led a group of 80 House Republicans who wrote to the Republican House leadership last week, urging them to allow a vote to defund the law popularly known as Obamacare in a short-term spending measure designed to keep the government running once the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Besides Meadows, four other North Carolina congressmen signed it: U.S. Reps. Howard Coble, Richard Hudson, George Holding and Walter Jones.
Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia haven’t given any sign of support for the shutdown strategy. Officially, their offices say no decision has been made.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the fight will “heat up in the month of September.”
“I believe if we see a grass-roots tsunami, that is going to cause Republicans and Democrats to listen to the people,” Cruz said, adding he’d do all he could to make that happen.
Pressure on Burr
At the same time, the party’s far right is on the attack against fellow Republicans.
Senate Conservative Fund, a political action committee, took out ads against Burr and other Southern Republican senators who oppose the health care law but also oppose risking a shutdown.
Burr was quoted as saying that an attempt to block funding to implement the law was “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s time for Richard Burr to start listening to us, not his friends in Washington,” the Senate Conservative Fund ad says.
The group also targeted Sens. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
The ads don’t mention that Burr and the others want to do away with the health care law.
All of the Republican senators voted against the law when it came to a vote Dec. 24, 2009. Shutdown supporters such as Cruz and Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida hadn’t been elected at the time.
The letter from Meadows and the others calls for providing no money to implement the Affordable Care Act in any appropriations bills, including any continuing resolutions to keep the government running after the end of the fiscal year. Since Democrats hold a majority in the Senate and President Barack Obama would defend his signature health law, the plan would risk an impasse that would pull the plug on funds for the federal government, resulting in a shutdown.
It’s a strategy that hurt the GOP in 1995 and 1996.
Ellmers, McHenry and Pittenger have voted against the Affordable Care Act repeatedly in the House.
McHenry reportedly told constituents at a question-and-answer session that shutting down the government would eliminate services people want, such as Social Security and the military. He also noted that Republican political power is limited.
Pittenger and Ellmers have said they didn’t sign the letter because the tactic has no chance of surviving in the Senate.
Pittenger has written and co-sponsored bills in the House to defund the health care law or eliminate it in other ways. He also has the most conservative rating of any North or South Carolina member of Congress, according to Heritage Action, the political action arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation. It gives him an approval rate of 93 percent.
Still, he declined Heritage Action’s campaign to get Republicans to sign Meadows’ letter. Pittenger has held four town hall meetings during the August recess and plans two more, and he’s been chided at them over the issue.
“I really understand where people are coming from. There’s a lot of pent-up emotion,” he said. “But when I look at it from a political point of view and what is realistic in Washington, D.C., having it defunded just is not on the radar screen.”
The resulting shutdown would mean no paychecks for members of the military, cuts in senior citizen services “and on and on and on,” but the health care law would remain in place because it’s funded with mandatory spending, Pittenger said.
“So I’m not going to convey to these wonderful people who are out there standing for our freedom that, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re not going to send you a paycheck because we have a little political game in Washington.’ ”
‘A misguided tactic’
A National Review blog late last week pointed out that Ellmers, speaking at the conservative Heritage Foundation in March 2011, supported using a stop-gap spending bill at that time to try to defund Obamacare.
Since then, Obama won re-election and Democrats kept their majority in the Senate, Ellmers spokesman Thomas Doheny said in a statement.
“Congresswoman Ellmers believes that threatening to shut down the government in order to defund Obamacare is a misguided tactic and will only replace one economic disaster with another one, and she is not willing to jeopardize the economic security of the United States in order lose a battle with the Democrats who control the White House and the U.S. Senate,” Doheny said.
But Holding, who is from Raleigh, said he signed the Meadows letter because it fits with his philosophy of decreasing government spending. He said Monday that the health care law would increase premiums and taxes, and that “we should do whatever we can to prevent its implementation, including leveraging the continuing resolution.”
A recent survey by Republican pollster David Winston found that the risk of a shutdown appeals to a relatively small percentage of Republicans who make up the most conservative wing of the party, but not to the majority of the party.
The poll found that among Republicans, 53 percent opposed a shutdown and 37 percent favored one; overall, 71 percent of voters opposed a shutdown, while 23 percent favored it.