New test could expose GOP's pack of charlatans

Do Cruz, Paul and co. really want to shut the government down over Obamacare? Their farce may soon be revealed

Published September 19, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

  (Jeff Malet, Cameron/Jonathan Ernst)
(Jeff Malet, Cameron/Jonathan Ernst)

Conservatives in the Senate have spent weeks and weeks hectoring House Republicans to stand true to GOP principles and make funding for the federal government contingent upon Democrats agreeing to defund Obamacare.

It's about to blow up in their faces, and probably turn several of their more moderate colleagues into collateral damage.

Frustrated House Republicans are already demanding that their conservative antagonists in the Senate fight to the bitter end, as they promised they would, to either defund the healthcare law or shut down the government. That means Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Mike Lee, R-Utah; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; and others will be held to account if they don't do everything in their power to prevent a government funding bill from clearing the Senate if it doesn't also defund Obamacare.

There are real steps they can take. But they're already indicating they don't plan to put up much of a fight. And if they lie down, it will expose their Defund Obamacare campaign as a farce engineered by hollow charlatans.

The House will vote this week on legislation that temporarily renews funding for the federal government, but prohibits any federal dollars from being used during that stretch to fund Obamacare. If it passes -- that remains an if -- it heads to the Senate, where arcane parliamentary rules give individual members (read: Republicans) tremendous power over legislative proceedings.

The precise steps conservative members can take to keep the debate chugging until they get their way depend on how the debate itself is structured at the outset. But it's not as simple as Cruz indicated in a statement Wednesday night.

"Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so," Cruz said. "At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people."

He and his conservative allies will be under the microscope. If they think they can just sit in their offices until it's time to vote no, and then claim they did everything in their power to defund Obamacare, they're in for a rude awakening.

The first question for these conservatives is whether they plan to engage in battle with the rest of the Senate GOP conference.

The bill coming over from the House will be "fully debatable on both ends," according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

That's technical mumbo-umbo, but it basically means Harry Reid will potentially face at least two filibusters if he wants to pass a final bill. Breaking filibusters requires 60 votes -- which means he'll need Republican help at some point along the way to fund Obamacare. First, he'll need Republican support just to begin debate on the bill. Then he'll need Republican votes to end it. The rules probably allow him to strip the defunding measure at the end of that process with a simple majority. But first he has to get there. And the Republican Party has a lot of power over whether he gets there and what happens in between.

Under less contentious circumstances, Reid, in conjunction with agreeable Republicans, could zip right through all this tedium with no real debate. But given the political valence of this government shutdown fight, that would amount to surrender -- to GOP complicity in stripping the defunding measure from the bill.

So the first questions are: Will Lee, Cruz, et al., insist on a real debate of the House bill? If they do, will the entire GOP conference back them up? If not, which unfortunate Republicans will cast the votes that ultimately give Reid the power to junk the defunding provision? Or worse, which Republicans will cast votes to junk it themselves? And how much pressure will Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the embattled Senate minority leader, bring to bear on the conference to toe the conservative line.

The answers will be extremely revealing. If the conservatives say nothing, they'll betray their whole charade. If moderate and mainstream Republicans cross them, they'll have to stand up and vote, and thus become sitting ducks on the right. If McConnell slinks into the distance, he'll have to answer for it in Kentucky.

The real test for these conservatives will come if they lock in extended debate on the House funding bill. In this interregnum, individual members can delay the inevitable passage of legislation they don't like by initiating a "talking filibuster" -- just like the famous one Rand Paul launched this past March.

Except Paul was more or less on his own. The Defund Caucus is about a dozen members large.

"If they were really careful about the way they did it and tag-teamed it indefinitely they could filibuster it indefinitely," said a Senate Dem aide.

To shut down the government, they'd need to execute the filibuster flawlessly. "That would involve them doing it for over a week with no screw-ups," the aide said.

But conservative activists, not to mention the House Republicans they've spent months dogging, will expect them to try. If they pass up the chance, they'll expose the defund campaign as a sham. And at the end of the process, some Senate Republicans are going to have to vote -- at least -- to give Reid and Democrats the power to strip the defunding measure. They'll be damaged goods. Either way, someone loses, and all because conservatives in the Senate thought they could demagogue the issue without ever having to put their credibility on the line.

"All options are on the table," Cruz's spokeswoman Catherine Frazier told Salon.

Last night on Hannity, aware that he'd stepped in it, Cruz himself vowed to fight "with every breath" to pass a defunding CR in the Senate.

Today, Republicans are taking a crash course in Senate parliamentary procedure, possibly preparing for some long nights. If there was any doubt that John Boehner's latest move was an exercise in calling conservatives' bluff, this should put it to bed.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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