A kamikaze mission.
That’s how the conservative editorial board of The Wall Street Journal described the current budget strategy floated by a number of conservatives in Congress: tying provisions to defund the Affordable Care Act to a “must-pass” bill like the continuing resolution to keep the government open past Sept. 30 or the debt ceiling increase that may be needed by late October.
“Kamikaze missions rarely turn out well, least of all for the pilots,” the WSJ editorial board wrote. One House GOP aide called it a “fantastical” plot with no real end game.
The ongoing budget battles have exposed not only the bitter divide between factions of the Republican Party in Congress — but also the wide gulf between influential conservative groups behind the scenes.
On one side of the coin are groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action. On the other are the Grover Norquist-led Americans for Tax Reform, the American Action Forum, and editorial boards like the Journal’s.
“We’re happy to have Grover with us on 95% of the issues,” Ed Fuelner, founder of the Heritage Foundation, said in an interview Monday night in New York.
On this one, Norquist is “wrong,” Fuelner said.
The differences between Norquist’s ATR and hard-line groups like Heritage and Club for Growth boiled up last week when GOP leaders tried a creative scheme that didn’t fly past the conservatives inside the House or outside of it.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor proposed a continuing resolution to lock in 2013 spending levels for three months while forcing the Senate to vote on defunding Obamacare. Rank-and-file House members could say they voted to defund Obamacare. In the end, the law would remain intact, but Republicans could point to the Democratic-controlled Senate as the reason.
That didn’t fly by Heritage and “the Club.”
“Partisan blame games don’t result in good policy, and they don’t move polls,” Heritage Action communications director Dan Holler told Business Insider. “That should’ve been the lesson from 2012. You can blame the other guys all you want, but unless you’re willing to stand up and show that you have an idea to move things forward, nobody’s going to follow you.”
Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham called it a gimmick. Club for Growth President Chris Chocola wondered if the news reports trickling out about the strategy were from The Onion. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), perhaps the Congressional face of the “defund Obamacare” movement (or fantasy, as many put it), blasted it as “procedural chicanery.”
Norquist’s support for Cantor’s strategy reflects a recognition that many conservatives are resisting: Obamacare is going to be implemented. Norquist’s ATR has endorsed the idea of delaying Obamacare’s individual mandate for a year, but he recognises that efforts to block overall implementation will fail. And he doesn’t think sharing that view makes you a traitor or “complicit” in Obamacare.
“You’ve got to ask for things the other team can sign off on — not because we’re being terribly bipartisan, but because the other team has the Senate and the White House,” Norquist told Business Insider in an interview.
The ultimate goal doesn’t differ: a full repeal of Obamacare. But the messaging, Norquist said, has led to confusion.
“It’s not where the conservative movement needs to be, because we miscommunicate to voters that somebody is not a good conservative because they have a different vision of how to get to the same place,” Norquist said. “I think there’s a big difference between saying, ‘Don’t vote for this tax increase,’ vs. ‘If you don’t vote for this tax cut, you’re a bad person.’ Well, you know, there are a lot of different ways to cut taxes.”
“ATR endorsed the idea of having a vote on defunding. We’re not in favour of saying, if that doesn’t pass, you should go live in a cave, or something.”
The feeling is the same in the House, where many GOP aides grumble about the quest that Cruz has undertaken without having any real plan for passing something in his own Congressional chamber. According to National Review, aide to Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) got into a heated argument with a Cruz staffer that ended with the former saying Cruz was “not dealing in reality.”
One House GOP aide complained to Business Insider that the Obamacare defunders, including Cruz, don’t have a plan beyond expecting Obama to sign a rollback of his signature legislative achievement in a grand, Rose Garden ceremony.
“Then what?” Norquist said. “We mock the president when he says he’s going to bomb Syria and then says that everyone’s going to behave. Well, what happens if they don’t behave? What if the war keeps going? … What’s your next plan after that? Conservative groups giving advice to Congress need to say, we recommend you have this vote, and then have some other strategies set up.”
Norquist and other conservatives also worry that the crusade to dismantle Obamacare will undermine GOP leverage on spending — particularly on spending cuts created by sequestration, which Republicans want to maintain and Democrats want to unwind.
Holding the line on spending while chipping away at Obamacare — an individual mandate delay, for example — will strengthen the Republican position. That’s a convincing argument, Norquist says, because of the other delays on which Obama has willingly signed off.
“Yeah, Grover gets it,” one House GOP aide said.
Will he and others get their way? The Journal editorial is perhaps significant in that one of the editorial board has previously taken a hard line and one of its members is Stephen Moore, the founder of the Club for Growth. The end of the editorial contains a terse warning:
We’ve often supported backbenchers who want to push GOP leaders in a better policy direction, most recently on the farm bill. But it’s something else entirely to sabotage any plan with a chance of succeeding and pretend to have “leverage” that exists only in the world of townhall applause lines and fundraising letters.
The best option now is for the GOP to unite behind a budget strategy that can hold 218 votes, keeping the sequester pressure of discretionary spending cuts on Democrats to come to the table on entitlements. The sequester is a rare policy victory the GOP has extracted from Mr. Obama, and it is squeezing liberal constituencies that depend on federal cash.
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