Tea Party's Obamacare Threat Could Harm GOP Election Chances, Republicans Warn

WASHINGTON -- Long-serving Republicans aren't engaged in an increasingly public smackdown of their tea party colleagues because they disagree with them -- it's more that they don't want a few hotheads to blow their party's best chance in years to retake control of the United States Senate.

Several tea party-powered senators have laid down a gauntlet of late, saying the GOP should refuse to pass a bill to fund the government in September unless all funding for the implementation of the health care reform law is cut.

It's a message -- championed by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) -- that appeals to the enthusiasms of a population that united against Obamacare under the banner of Taxed Enough Already in 2009, a year in which federal taxes actually hit historic lows.

Cruz has argued that united Republicans could force President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate to accept a government-funding measure that essentially ends Obama's marquee achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

"I believe that if Republicans stand together, this is a fight we can win," Cruz told reporters last week. "It represents our best opportunity to actually defund Obamacare, and potentially our last good opportunity to do so," he said, arguing that although his side doesn't have the votes now, that can change over the August break.

But more senior members of the GOP caucus -- most prominently Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) -- have said they see the idea as ill-conceived and unreasonable. In an unexpected twist, the veteran lawmakers who are not exactly known for being voices of moderation are appealing for a more deliberate approach. They worry that most of the nation simply is not ready to shutter the government just to hamstring Obamacare. And in interviews as Congress was getting ready to ready to adjourn until September, McCain, Coburn and other Republican leaders said that while they believe the health care law will be the train wreck the GOP is forecasting, following the path of Cruz, Lee and Rubio could produce a more immediate derailment -- of the GOP's electoral chances in 2014.

"I'm not sure why we should advocate for something that's absolutely impossible. The only way Obamacare is going to be repealed is with a 60-vote Republican Senate, and then, in order to override a presidential veto, I think it's 67 votes," McCain said. "I haven't seen an attempt to override a veto in a long time. It's a non-starter."

And a political land mine, he added.

"Those of us who have been around for a while know what happens when there's the threat of a shutdown of the government: It's the Congress that gets blamed," McCain said. "If the minority uses its strength, its 41 votes [to filibuster government funding], then clearly the American people will blame the Congress. And they do -- that's the history. And those who say that's not the case ignore the lessons of history and the realities of American politics."

One of those who remembers the history is Coburn, who was first elected as a member of the House in the Republican revolution of 1994 -- before the last time the GOP shut down the government under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1995 and 1996.

Coburn suggested that even then, when Republicans were more unified around the idea of a shutdown, they were not really all that committed to it -- making their efforts doomed to fail.

"Here's what I know. I saw the lack of us holding what we said was our strategy, and ultimately losing 9 seats in the House when we should have won 22, and being less effective in the long-run because we didn't hold onto our strategy," Coburn told The Huffington Post.

"The difference is you had the vast majority of Republicans wanting to do that. You don't have the vast majority of Republicans wanting to do that now. So if you could do it, you'd hold for even less time. So what you'd do is say, 'Yes, the government's shut down.' And the first time the pressure gets up with people not really sold on the strategy, they'll bail on you," he said.

"The only way that strategy works is if you're going to take the hostage and shoot it. Which means you're never going to open the government back up until Obama says uncle," Coburn said, arguing that there's no way a filibuster-strong 40 members of the GOP caucus would be willing to halt Social Security checks, mail delivery, passport services, construction work and the myriad other things constituents expect from the government in hopes of making Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blink. "What is the likelihood of that? And what is the probability that members of the Senate will hold on that? It's about zero."

GOP strategists who lived through the Gingrich debacle are also keenly aware of the downsides.

"Shutting down the government never works at the end of the day," said longtime GOP consultant Ed Rollins, who rose to prominence under Ronald Reagan and most recently served a brief stint running Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) 2012 presidential campaign. "Even though we shut it down last time, it helped the president [Bill Clinton] win reelection."

Another strategist, former National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Brian Walsh, said he found the tea party senators' push especially ill-timed because the GOP, he feels, is already scoring significant points by spotlighting and magnifying every new problem with the rollout of the health care law.

Having the tea party heroes launch a holy war against fellow Republicans over their alleged insufficient purity on Obamacare is just about as welcome as a bruising primary challenge, Walsh said.

"The frustrating part is politically we are on offense," Walsh said. "You're seeing stories in a lot places about companies pulling out of the [Obamacare] markets, and small businesses cutting workers' hours. You're seeing all these stories about problems with the Obamacare implementation … So it's a little frustrating that instead of that being the focus, instead of keeping the Democrats on defense, there's a section of the party that would rather engage in fratricide."

Walsh is an especially acute observer in this case because it was during his stint at the NRSC that Republicans failed to retake the Senate, largely thanks to stumbles from tea party candidates such as Christine O'Donnell in Delaware in 2010 and Nevada's Sharron Angle that same year. Last year featured failures by Richard Mourdoch in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri. They all triumphed over more mainstream candidates in primaries, but alienated too many voters in the general elections, even in red states.

"Conservatively, the party gave away five seats in those years," Walsh said.

Coburn probably would not agree that anyone lost by being too conservative. He's proud of his own right-wing philosophy, and suggests that some of today's younger firebrands might not do as well holding on to core conservative values amid the compromises and temptations of Washington.

"We'll see after 10 years if they still have a 99 [American Conservative Union] rating," Coburn said.

What Coburn worries about is his newer colleagues making dumb promises.

"If your strategy is to hold government funding hostage to defund Obamacare, the [Congressional Research Service] says as you do that, guess what's going to happen? Funding for Obamacare is going to continue," Coburn said, referring to a report by the nonpartisan CRS that explained most of the funding for the health care law is mandatory and not subject to Congress' annual appropriations battles. "So it tells you the problem with the strategy."

And of course, there are the electoral consequences.

"The other thing that's dangerous in it, is that you create the expectation in our base that you can do something that is absolutely not achievable. It may be achievable for two weeks or three weeks, but if your ultimate goal is to defund it, and you have a president and a Senate controlled by Democrats, and a thin majority in the House, the strategy doesn't work," Coburn said.

"If you pump the base up and say here's something we can do when in fact you can't, but they believe you could have done it, and then you don't do it -- I think it keeps a lot of people at home, because they say, 'Gosh, the Republicans wouldn't stand again,'" he said.

Nevertheless, Cruz and Co. have embarked on a drive -- including an online petition that's racked up more than 250,000 signers -- to promote their shutdown showdown all through August, hoping to galvanize the same sort of 2009 outpouring that handed the GOP control of the House of Representatives the next year, and to pressure their colleagues into standing with them.

"I for one, and I know my colleagues as well, are not prepared to go home and tell people, ‘Well, we tried, but we couldn’t,’" Rubio said in announcing the push last week. "We have to go home and say, 'We did everything we could. We took every step available to us.' And that's why this is such an important issue."

But McCain noted that a letter they circulated before the break was actually losing support. Indeed, one of the senators listed as uncommitted in the online petition, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, echoed her more conservative colleagues in slamming the shutdown threat.

"Let's be realistic. Obamacare, a law that I strongly oppose, is not going to be repealed. So the effect of trying to repeal the funding of government inevitably leads to a government shutdown, which I do not believe is good policy or good politics," Collins said. "The American people want common-sense solutions. They don't want us to pursue policies that are pointless, that are going to end in government shutting down, more partisanship, more gridlock. They want us to actually get things done."

Walsh argued that the dissidents should take a page from the conservative playbook of four years ago. "When you look at 2009, the tea party ire was focused appropriately on Obamacare, and now you see some of that focused on the Republican Party," Walsh said, adding that the government shutdown threat is taking the GOP "off message."

Particularly confounding to him was the fundamental irrationality in a push that casts some of the opponents of the Cruz-Lee-Rubio effort -- who also include Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) -- as not real conservatives.

"When you're suggesting that anyone like Tom Coburn is less than conservative, you better look in the mirror," Walsh said.

The older Republicans did not disparage the motives of their younger brethren, but at least three of them -- Cruz, Rubio, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) -- have openly flirted with a 2016 GOP presidential bid, which could benefit from tea party support. And the inboxes of just about anyone paying attention to the conservative movement has seen the steady stream lately of praise for the effort from groups like the Tea Party Express, as well as fundraising appeals.

Still, political veterans thought the hotshots would be wise to cool it, at least a little.

"Ted Cruz hasn't even been here two years, and he's got a bright, long future in the party," said Rollins. "But he should be a little patient. You need make sure that whatever your goal is, it's something you can achieve. And you can't achieve this."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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