Government shutdown still all about Obamacare, hard-liner warns

Michael Needham of Heritage Action for America says that the core fight is Obamacare and any bid to end the government shutdown must deal with it. 'No strings attached' doesn't get it done.

By , Staff writer

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    Michael Needham, chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America, speaks Wednesday in Washington.
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Don’t cave on Obamacare. That’s the message to Republican legislators from the head of Heritage Action for America, a key advocacy group behind hard-liners on the budget battle that has shut down the government for nine days and counting.

“Anything that comes out of this has to address the core fight, which is Obamacare,” the group’s CEO, Michael Needham, told reporters Wednesday at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.  

That requirement holds no matter the length of a government-funding measure Congress passes – “24 hours, two weeks, seven years,” says Mr. Needham, whose group is the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

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And just getting rid of the medical device tax, a source of funding for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as Obamacare is formally known, isn’t enough.

“I think the medical device tax is kind of a laughable suggestion that shows the extent of cronyism going on this town...,” he says. “The medical device tax is a bad tax that should go away along with the rest of Obamacare.”

House Republican leaders have backed off lately in their focus on Obamacare and the government shutdown and shifted more toward a budget deal to resolve the debt ceiling. In an opinion piece published Thursday in The Wall Street Journal, called “Here’s how we can end this stalemate,” House Budget chief Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin didn’t mention the health reform act.

President Obama has said he is willing to negotiate with Republican House Speaker John Boehner on a range of matters – entitlement reform, tax reform, health care – if Congress will pass a short-term funding measure to reopen the government and increase in the debt ceiling with no strings attached. But that doesn’t work for Needham, an ally of Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and other tea party-oriented members of Congress. Mr. Obama has pledged to stand firm in protecting the ACA, the signature achievement of his presidency.

Needham does not draw a hard line on an increase in the debt ceiling.

“I think that we would give the speaker some flexibility on a short term debt limit increase to keep the focus where it should be, which is about Obamacare,” Needham says.

“But any CR ["continuing resolution" or stopgap government funding measure] that does not address Obamacare is something that we would be very strongly against.

According to the Treasury Department, Congress must raise the debt ceiling by Oct. 17 to allow the federal government to continue borrowing money and paying its bills, including interest on existing debt – though Needham disputes the common assertion that the government would go into a calamitous default if the debt ceiling weren’t raised. Treasury can choose to pay debt service first, he says.

Needham blames Obama for the shutdown, not the fact that Heritage Action spent “a couple hundred thousand dollars” to fight Obamacare.

“It is that there are millions of Americans out there who actually stood up and went to town halls and had their voices heard,” Needham says. “If this was just a couple of groups putting pressure on House Republicans to stand strong on Obamacare, this would not have happened.”

During Congress’s August recess, members heard from their constituents and the message was, “Defund Obamacare,” he says.

“We played a role and Ted Cruz played a role,” Needham says. “The most important thing we did through August was give people the arguments they needed to push back on excuses they were getting from members of Congress.”

In August, Heritage Action organized a nine city “Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour,” featuring Senator Cruz and former Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, now president of the Heritage Foundation.

Needham revealed that the billionaire Koch brothers donated $500,000 to his organization, adding that they are not Heritage Action’s largest donor. After news of that comment broke, an official from Koch Industries sent a letter to senators indicating that the conglomerate does not have a position on GOP efforts to defund Obamacare by linking it to the reopening of the government.

Needham also spoke of a larger dynamic at play within the Republican Party, the conflict between K Street – the symbol of lobbying power in Washington – and the outside forces that represent millions of voters outside the Beltway.

“To the extent that there’s a libertarian, populist strain in the Republican Party, or there’s conflict between K Street and what’s being called the tea party right now,” Needham says, “it’s because there are millions of Americans out there who think it’s ridiculous that in Washington, D.C., K Street has a louder voice than Republican base voters.”

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