N.C. Republican lawmakers at odds over anti-Obamacare strategy

Renee Schoof

Republicans in Congress are divided over whether to use the threat of a government shutdown to defund the president’s health care law, and the split is nowhere more evident than in North Carolina.

Some Republicans who have always opposed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and voted against it _ Sen. Richard Burr and Reps. Renee Ellmers of Dunn, Robert Pittenger of Charlotte and Patrick McHenry of western North Carolina_ oppose the shutdown threat.

Meanwhile, freshman Rep. Mark Meadows, whose district is west and north of McHenry’s, led a group of 80 House Republicans who wrote to the Republican House leadership last week, urging them to allow a vote to defund the law popularly known as Obamacare in a short-term spending measure designed to keep the government running once the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Besides Meadows, four other North Carolina congressmen signed it: Howard Coble, Richard Hudson, George Holding and Walter Jones.

Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia haven’t given any sign of support for the shutdown strategy. Officially, their offices say no decision has been made.

Boehner and Cantor told Republican House members that they want to pass a short-term spending bill that locks in the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration and keeps the government open, said a person familiar with the call. The leaders also believe that they will have more leverage with the debt-limit vote expected in mid-October, the person said, adding that Boehner said that historically "nothing big has ever been enacted in divided government as part of a CR,” or continuing resolution, but that debt limits have been used "to do some very big things."

Tea party activists are pushing hard for what they see as a tougher approach. The issue has flared during the August recess at town hall meetings, where conservative citizens have demanded support for the defunding strategy.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the fight will “heat up in the month of September.”

“I believe if we see a grass-roots tsunami that is going to cause Republicans and Democrats to listen to the people,” Cruz said, adding he’d do all he could to make that happen.

At the same time, the party’s far right is on the attack against fellow Republicans.

Senate Conservative Fund, a political action committee, took out ads against Burr and other southern Republican senators who oppose the health care law but also oppose risking a shutdown.

Burr was quoted as saying that an attempt to block funding to implement the law was “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s time for Richard Burr to start listening to us, not his friends in Washington,” the Senate Conservative Fund ad says. The group also targeted Sens. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

The ads don’t mention that Burr and the others want to do away with Obamacare.

All of the Republican senators voted against the law when it came to a vote in the Senate on Dec. 24, 2009. Shutdown supporters such as Cruz and Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida hadn’t been elected yet at the time.

The letter from Meadows and the others calls for providing no money to implement Obamacare in any appropriations bills, including any continuing resolution to keep the government running after the end of the fiscal year. Since Democrats hold a majority in the Senate and President Barack Obama would defend his signature health law, the plan would risk an impasse that would pull the plug on funds for the federal government, resulting in a shutdown.

It’s a strategy that hurt the GOP in 1995 and 1996.

Ellmers, McHenry and Pittenger have voted against the Affordable Care Act repeatedly in the House.

McHenry reportedly told constituents at a question-and-answer session that shutting down the government would eliminate services people want, such as Social Security and the military. He also noted that Republican political power is limited.

Pittenger and Ellmers have said they didn’t sign the letter because the tactic has no chance of surviving in the Senate.

A National Review blog late last week pointed out that Ellmers, speaking at the conservative Heritage Foundation in March 2011, supported using a stop-gap spending bill at that time to try to defund Obamacare.

Since then, Obama won re-election and Democrats kept their majority in the Senate, said Ellmers spokesman Thomas Doheny in a statement.

“Congresswoman Ellmers believes that threatening to shut down the government in order to defund Obamacare is a misguided tactic and will only replace one economic disaster with another one, and she is not willing to jeopardize the economic security of the United States in order lose a battle with the Democrats who control the White House and the U.S. Senate,” Doheny said.

But Holding, who is from Raleigh, said he signed the Meadows letter because it fits with his philosophy of decreasing government spending. He said on Monday that the health care law would increase premiums and taxes and that "we should do whatever we can to prevent its implementation, including leveraging the continuing resolution."

A recent survey by Republican pollster David Winston found that the risk of a shutdown appeals to a relatively small percentage of Republicans who make up the most conservative wing of the party, but not to the majority of the party.

The poll found that among Republicans, 53 percent opposed a shutdown and 37 percent favored one; overall, 71 percent of voters opposed a shutdown, while 23 percent favored it.

David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed.

By Renee Schoof
McClatchy Washington Bureau