Defunders vs. Delayers: Conservatives are split over Obamacare strategy

Chris Moody
Yahoo! News
Tea Party Blasts Lawmakers for Fearing Town Hall Obamacare Fight
Tea Party Blasts Lawmakers for Fearing Town Hall Obamacare Fight (ABC News)

You would be hard-pressed to find a conservative who supports President Barack Obama’s health care law, but when it comes to the actual strategy to bring it down, there isn’t nearly as much unity.

Republicans are divided over how to continue the fight against the 2010 law known as Obamacare, which the U.S. Supreme Court deemed constitutional in 2012. There is a disagreement within the conservative movement between those who want to defund the law and those who think it would be better to delay its implementation.

Both share the same aim: the eventual destruction of Obamacare. But the two sides have significant tactical disagreements over how to reach that goal.

On the Defunder side, a group of conservatives in Congress has threatened to vote against any government spending measure (known as a continuing resolution, or CR) that includes federal funding to implement the law. Congress must agree to a new CR by the end of September, when the last short-term extension of federal spending levels expires, or risk shutting down the government. So far, 13 Republican senators have signaled support for the effort by refusing to vote for any CR that includes health care law funding. Even more Republicans have said they will support a bill that cuts out Obamacare funding, but have not made the commitment to reject a CR if the defund effort fails.

The Defunders have the backing of large conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and its advocacy arm, Heritage Action. Heritage President Jim DeMint has spent the month of August hosting town hall meetings across the country to pressure lawmakers to commit to demanding that the law be stripped of funding — even if it means risking a shutdown.

Supporters of the defund strategy say that attaching the demand to a CR, a must-pass bill, will force Democrats to engage them on the issue. Unlike past failed attempts to repeal the law, the bill won’t disappear into memory when ignored or rejected by Democrats, they say. This one would have teeth.

“That’s what separates our defunding efforts from most of the previous repeal votes that have taken place,” Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler told Yahoo News. “Here you’re talking about attaching it to something that has to be signed into law at some point.”

The most ardent advocates for the defund strategy, such as Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, have taken to preemptively calling out lawmakers who don’t join their effort when it comes time to vote for the CR. “You cannot say you are against Obamacare if you are willing to vote for a law that funds it,” Rubio has said.

But lawmakers, including many Republicans, have already voted on past spending measures that have funded Obamacare. Why, suddenly, does this particular CR matter so much? The answer: Timing.

The upcoming CR will be the last spending measure before some of the most prominent programs under Obamacare are scheduled to begin. As early as Oct. 1, Americans without health insurance will be able to apply for coverage established by the law. On Jan. 1, all Americans will be required to prove they are enrolled in a health insurance coverage plan and Medicaid eligibility programs will be expanded. By the end of 2014, the law will be well on its way to full implementation, and the defunders worry that it will be impossible to stop the Obamacare ball once it starts rolling.

“There is a real sense that this is one of the last opportunities that you have to try to prevent the law’s implementation,” Holler told Yahoo News. “I think that’s where this is being driven from.”

Other conservatives, however, question whether the plan is worth prompting a confrontation that could shut down the government. Instead of attaching a defund bill to the CR and refusing to budge under any circumstances, they are urging Republicans to demand that the law be delayed.

“Anything that delays it makes it possible in the future to ask for a further delay,” said Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist, who earlier this month sent a letter to Republican congressional leaders urging them to fight for a one-year delay of the law’s provisions. “Delaying it reminds people that it was not ready for prime time, that it was poorly written, that it was hurriedly thrown together.”

The Delayers say their strategy is more likely to succeed than the Defunders’ effort. It is hard to conceive of Obama agreeing to strip funding for his landmark legislative achievement, they say. Delaying it seems more within the realm of possibility.

One technical flaw in the Delayers’ strategy, Defunders say, is that during the delay period, the federal government will still be able to pump money into programs, which will pave the way for future implementation. Even if the law is delayed, federal employees can still work on the law in the background.

“Bureaucrats will still be able to work on implementation. They’ll still be able to get all the kinks worked out, the forms will be streamlined, etc. ...,” Holler said. “The bureaucrats can continue working under a delay and, come 2016, the Obama administration can roll out a smooth show of Obamacare exchanges.” Defunding the law, Holler added, “makes certain that the bureaucrats can’t work.”

On Capitol Hill, it appears the Delayers may be winning the argument. An aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told the Huffington Post's Sam Stein Thursday that they could use the need to raise the nation's debt ceiling as a leverage point for delaying key parts of the law. "One of many things we can pursue on debt limit [is] potentially the individual mandate delay and codifying the business mandate delay," the aide told Stein. "And perhaps other aspects."

Regardless, when lawmakers return to Washington from their summer recess in September, both the Defunders and the Delayers will continue the fight to convince enough Republicans that their strategy is best.