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Endgame Unclear in Republican Effort to Push Towards Shutdown Over Obamacare

September 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Senate has a week to approve a government spending bill, but, as Kwame Holman reports, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is determined to block any attempt to pass a bill that includes funding for Obamacare. Author Robert Draper and Meredith Shiner of Roll Call join Judy Woodruff for a look inside the dynamics and schisms of the GOP.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to domestic politics and the battle over the budget, as congressional leaders face a Monday deadline.

Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: With a possible government shutdown just a week away, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas sounded like he was starting an old-fashioned filibuster.

SEN. TED CRUZ, R-Tex.: Madam President, I intend to speak in opposition to Obamacare. I intend to speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid insisted no one can block tomorrow’s vote to take up a House bill that funds the government past October 1.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: There’s no filibuster going on now. People can come and talk, but they can’t do anything to change when we vote.

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KWAME HOLMAN: The House bill pays for government operations into mid-December, but also defunds the president’s health care law. Senate Democrats mean to take up that bill, remove the language on Obamacare, and fund the government through mid-November.

Rather than let that happen, Cruz and other conservatives are pushing fellow Republicans to block all action. Otherwise, he says, it’s just business as usual.

TED CRUZ: You know, it’s a little bit like the World Wrestling Federation. It’s wrestling matches where it’s all rigged, the outcome is predetermined, they know in advance who’s going to win and lose, and it’s all for show.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Cruz’s plan has splintered conservative ranks. The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, says he will vote to take up the House bill because it includes many provisions he supports.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: We’d all be hard-pressed to explain why we were opposed to a bill we were in favor of. And invoking cloture on a bill that defunds Obamacare, doesn’t raise taxes and respects the Budget Control Act strikes me as a no-brainer.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Wall Street Journal editorialized against the Cruz strategy today, writing: “It merely postpones the inevitable, unless Mr. Cruz and Republicans want to prevent the Senate from passing any budget at all.”

Meanwhile, Senator Reid asserted that any delay could up the chances of a shutdown.

HARRY REID: If we finish this on Sunday, send it back to the House, the House is talking about changing it again. and that is a surefire way to shut down the government.

KWAME HOLMAN: So far, House Republican leaders have not said publicly what their next move will be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To help us understand the forces at play in this fiscal fight, we turn to journalist Robert Draper. He has covered Republican politics and he is the author of “When the Tea Party Came to Town.” And Meredith Shiner, she covers the U.S. Senate for the newspaper Roll Call.

Welcome to both of you to the NewsHour again.

So, Meredith Shiner, before we get to the Senate, refresh our memories on what happened in the House. Why did they pass a budget that evidently doesn’t have a chance of passing the Senate?

MEREDITH SHINER, Roll Call: So they passed a three-month short-term appropriations bill to try to avert a government shutdown, but one of the ways they were able to get their conservative members to do that was to include a provision to defund the president’s health care law.

This is the 41st time they voted to do that, if you’re keeping score at home. We still haven’t defunded the law yet because the Senate is still controlled by Democrats and the president, whose landmark achievement this law is, is not going to actually support that maneuver. So they sent this because they needed to actually just start the process.

Without them showing what they could actually pass, the Senate couldn’t then act. The biggest problem now is just time, because, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, if they eat the entire clock procedurally, they won’t pass anything until Sunday, and they will have one day to avert a shutdown, and the House will most certainly try to change what they send them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

And, Robert Draper, you have this spectacle now where you have three freshmen — two or three freshman Republican senators, Ted Cruz of Texas being the most prominent, outspoken, standing against the leadership of their own party. How unusual is that?

ROBERT DRAPER, “When the Tea Party Came to Town”: Well, very unusual, in light of the fact that, in 2010, 87 Republicans ushered John Boehner into the speakership. So you could say then that he was beholden to the Tea Party movement.

You can’t say that right now. After all, the Republicans lost the 2012 election. And they’re at pains to sort of figure out how they climb out of the wilderness. That’s their quandary, Judy, because on the one hand, they feel like they have to reach out beyond the base. On the other hand, to the extent that there is any animation at all within the Republican Party, it’s provided by Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul.

And so to the extent that there’s excitement generated at all within the Republican Party, it’s from those guys.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meredith Shiner, how is the Republican leadership in the Senate? And we just heard from Senator McConnell. How do they look on this? I mean, are they — do they have a plan for what they’re going do?

MEREDITH SHINER: I think that they’re extraordinarily frustrated. Every Tuesday, Senate Republicans have lunch. And today they tried to convince Ted Cruz that they wanted to move forward procedurally, that they should give consent to Democrats to move forward so they could avert a shutdown.

And Ted Cruz said, but, no, if you do try to do that, I will object. So, again, this is probably going to go until Sunday. And Senate Republican leaders know that ultimately you aren’t going to be able to defund this law with this sort of effort, so they’re wondering what the ends are, because they’re not talking about the things that Republicans are usually comfortable talking about.

We’re not talking about spending levels. We’re not talking about sequestration. We’re not talking about the things that spending bills are supposed to be about. We’re talking about something that is right now not an achievable political reality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, clearly, Robert Draper, Cruz and the other senators, Mike Lee of Utah, I guess Marco Rubio of Florida, still backing this effort.

ROBERT DRAPER: To some degree, yes.

And it’s a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, their belief is clearly that Obamacare is so unpopular with the public that, ultimately, it’s President Obama, not the Republicans, who will have to fold on this standoff.

On the other hand, in fact, the Pew Research Center did this poll recently that indicates that while…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have got — we have got some — I think some poll results we can show.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERT DRAPER: Right, that only 42 percent of Americans support Obamacare. But only 38 percent support the efforts to defund it.

And that number goes way down — in fact, it’s cut in half, essentially — when the public is asked, if it would lead to a government shutdown, would you continue to support a defunding measure? And so — and, furthermore, the people who really are against defunding are those kinds of groups, the Latinos and women, that the Republicans have been at pain to persuade to join the party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Meredith Shiner, what’s the thinking on the part of the Tea Party members? What are they hearing from their constituencies that leads them on this crusade?

MEREDITH SHINER: Well, I think that it’s a feedback cycle.

You hear someone like Ted Cruz or Mike Lee going on the radio, going on conservative television saying that this is a reality that you could just vote to defund this bill, to cut this bill out from underneath what the Democrats are trying to do. More implementation takes effect next week. If you wanted to actually defund or reverse this law, you would have to get a Republican president into office.

And so I think that when you continue to say that message that this is something that we can do, that’s why you have 41 votes in the House of Representatives to try to achieve this, because you have these constituents who are hearing that message who then pressure these conservative members to push forward. And so it really binds leadership.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Help us understand this divide that we’re watching, Robert Draper, among conservatives and among Republicans. How is it breaking down out there in the country and here in Washington?

ROBERT DRAPER: It’s become even more confused than it was in 2010 and 2011, where we saw this schism between what you would call the Tea Party movement and establishment Republicans.

Ted Cruz is, not strictly speaking, a libertarian. He and Rand Paul don’t agree on every single thing, nor, for that matter, does he agree on every single thing with Marco Rubio, who came in with the Tea Party movement.

And what’s especially frustrating to The Wall Street Journal editorial board, to Karl Rove and to other so-called establishment Republicans or establishment conservatives who have come out against Ted Cruz is that Cruz’s gambit lacks a strategy. It seems to me just sort of throwing a bomb into things, without any particular endgame.

And their concern is that this is going to blow back — historically, it has — against Republicans on government shutdowns, but this will in particular because there’s no end in sight. Even Senator Cruz has not suggested precisely how all of this is going to play out in the Republicans’ favor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of how it all plays out, Meredith, what about — I mean, what happens? Assuming the Senate changes this bill, takes out the part that defunds Obamacare, sends it back to the House, what are the prospects at that point for funding the government?

MEREDITH SHINER: That’s the $988 million question — billion-dollar question at this point.

Look, thank you for correcting my B. — my M. to B. I don’t know. I think that they don’t really know exactly what they’re going to do yet. I think that they’re looking to Senate Republican votes, because if there’s an overwhelming percentage of the Senate Republican Conference that votes in favor for this bill, it will be easier for House Republican leaders to sell whatever package or changes that they have to make.

The problem right now is that you have multiple divisions within Republicans on the Senate side. You have conservatives like Tom Coburn who think the spending levels are too high. And then you have the Ted Cruz “we need to defund the health care law.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: But my question is, are they prepared to shut down the government, which is what happens if there is no agreement?

MEREDITH SHINER: I think that they have to be, particularly given what the timeline is, even if it’s a temporary shutdown. If you remember back in the spring of 2011, there were a few hours in which the government was shut down. You could see something that would potentially be in the days’ length.

But it doesn’t seem that they have any sort of endgame strategy. But I don’t know. They tend to pull things out at the end, so we will see. But, right now, it seems like they’re pretty much caught.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, watch this space closely between now and Monday.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meredith Shiner, Robert Draper, thank you both.

MEREDITH SHINER: Thank you.