With just hours remaining before a government shutdown, cracks are appearing in a GOP edifice that had been united in pushing a showdown with President Obama and Senate Democrats to the stroke of midnight and beyond.
An insurgent faction representing about a third of the Republican Party is holding out for a win. But some GOP moderates are making a strong case that the insurgency has had its moment and ran into insurmountable odds, and that it’s time to move on.
At the heart of the insurgency is Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who declared partial victory Monday after the Senate rejected – swiftly, without debate, and on a straight party-line vote – the latest attempt by the GOP-controlled House to delay Obamacare.
“The voices of the American people have begun to be heard in this body,” he said, speaking on the floor in midafternoon after a proposed one-year delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate was defeated.
Senator Cruz and some 90 House Republicans had adopted a strategy of linking the defunding of Obamacare to the funding for the new fiscal year. They and the outside conservative groups that back them said that the individual mandate to buy health insurance was so unpopular that the American people would rise up and force Senate majority leader Harry Reid to adopt the plan and Mr. Obama to sign it.
That didn’t happen, and polls show a majority of Americans think preventing a government shutdown is more important than defunding Obamacare.
In a bid to keep his caucus unified – or, at least, fight to the last possible minute – House Speaker John Boehner took one last shot Monday evening at formulating an offer that Senator Reid in theory could not refuse: delay Obamacare while requiring members of Congress and their staff to buy health insurance on the same public exchanges as other Americans.
The insurgents called this “the nuclear option.” It’s an offer that Senate Democrats cannot refuse, they say, without appearing to be putting Congress above the American people. If Republicans stay united, they say, they can’t lose.
“You can’t imagine a more perfect political set-up than that which we are in right now,” says Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas. “Are you going to close down the government to protect your own special privilege? If so, then Harry Reid is the obstructionist.”
But doubts were growing in GOP ranks on whether even the nuclear option, which the House passed 228 to 201 at about 9 p.m., would be enough to convince Democrats to turn against their signature domestic achievement. Twelve Republicans broke ranks to vote against the measure.
“The fear shouldn’t be what happens at 12 p.m. tonight,” says Rep. Michele Bachmann, a founder of the House tea party caucus. “It should be what happens to jobs. We need to get back to the unity we had.”
Just minutes after the House vote, Reid declared the latest House measure “dead on arrival.”
“We will not negotiate at the point of a gun,” he said.
Out of leverage, House Republicans are now openly discussing their options, including taking a measure to the floor that simply extends funding for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1 for another week – or longer.
“We went to the nuclear option,” says six-term Rep. Devin Nunes (R) of California. “I don’t know what’s beyond this. This is everything in the tool box.”
“I say to my friends in the tea party: We have to negotiate,” says Rep. Pat Tiberi (R) of Ohio, a close ally of Speaker Boehner. “We’re in a Republic. We have a House and a Senate. I want Harry Reid to compromise just as I want Ted Cruz to compromise.”