The House GOP’s strategy to send the fight over defunding Obamacare to the Senate puts Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in a predicament.
The House is widely expected to pass legislation on Friday to keep the federal government open after Sept. 30 and prohibit funds to implement the Affordable Care Act. The battle then goes to the upper chamber. Ordinarily this wouldn’t — and shouldn’t — be the minority leader’s fight. But the confluence of conservative grassroots angst, the super-majority requirement in the Senate and his re-election bid will inevitably make it McConnell’s fight.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who has vowed not to defund Obamacare, will need 60 votes to strip out that language. That means he’ll need at least five Republican senators to advance any continuing resolution.
McConnell is fending off a strong conservative challenger for re-election, a Louisville businessman named Matt Bevin, who has spent weeks deriding him as weak on Obamacare and demanding that he shut down the government if it’s not defunded. All summer, the cause has animated the GOP base that McConnell needs to win over, and he risks being attacked for enabling it if he doesn’t unite the Republican conference to deny Reid the votes to eliminate the defunding language.
“The American people have been clear that Obamacare should go. The Senate should pass a continuing resolution without Obamacare funding,” Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Durand told TPM in an email. “McConnell has refused to lead on this issue, but it’s time for him to listen to his constituents and do the right thing.”
But denying Reid the votes to move the stopgap funding bill would lead to a shutdown, which McConnell recognizes is not in the GOP’s interest and has been angling against. Senior Republican aides privately admit their party will be blamed for a shutdown and don’t believe this is a winnable battle. The fallout could damage the Republican Party’s credibility and imperil its chances of winning back the Senate, crushing McConnell’s hopes of becoming majority leader for the third promising election cycle in a row.
A McConnell spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on this article, but last month the Republican leader told his constituents at home, “I’m for stopping Obamacare, but shutting down the government will not stop Obamacare.”
The fight was egged on by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT), who will be motivated to demonstrate their credibility with the right and fight to defund Obamacare in the Senate. These senators have recently made life miserable for Republican leaders, particularly in the House, by deriding them as weak on Obamacare.
Senate Democratic leaders are considering bringing up the House’s continuing resolution in a way that requires Republican votes to advance it procedurally but not to strip out the Obamacare funds. That could give some cover to GOP senators, who won’t technically have to vote to restore Obamacare funding. But conservatives are likely to see Democrats’ gambit for what it is, and they’ll demand McConnell and his colleagues deny them them the votes to move it procedurally unless they agree to defund Obamacare.
There are no good options for the minority leader. Even if, by some miracle, the Senate passes a continuing resolution that defunds Obamacare, the White House unequivocally said Thursday that President Barack Obama would veto such legislation. It’s a losing — if not self-defeating — battle that McConnell will be pressured to show he is nevertheless fighting.