Coburn vs. Cruz: GOP Turmoil on Delaying Obamacare

With the 2014 fiscal year starting in less than two months, Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) are leading the fight in what is almost certainly the last chance to prevent Obamacare’s implementation: prevention of funding in the Continuing Resolution Congress will negotiate in September.

The Senate Conservatives Fund has the list of signatories to the Lee letter for delay of Obamacare, which includes stalwart conservatives like Senators Cruz and Lee, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK). However, one fiscal conservative’s name is conspicuously missing: Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who has publicly opposed the current Cruz/Lee strategy.

Pre Tea Party era, Senator Coburn was one of the few fiscal conservatives in Washington. His opposition to fraud, federal mismanagement, and Congress’ overall arrogance and law-breaking are legendary, and his Back in Black budget plan cuts $9 trillion over a decade. Yet last week, Senator Coburn told The Washington Examiner’s Byron York the delay strategy is “dishonest”:

“You’re going to set an expectation among the conservatives in our party that we can achieve something that we’re not able to achieve,” Coburn continued. “It’s not an achievable strategy. It’s creating the false impression that you can do something when you can’t. And it’s dishonest.”

So what’s this about? It boils down to disagreements on two critical areas of Obamacare: messaging and mandatory spending. According to Senator Coburn in a floor speech on Tuesday, without 67 votes Senate Republicans cannot override a Presidential veto of a budget that does not fund Obamacare. Furthermore, the Senator correctly pointed out that much of Obamacare is funded through mandatory spending, which is not impacted in a traditional Continuing Resolution. He also cited a Congressional Research Service report, which shows that the state exchanges and other areas of Obamacare will still be able to function in a government shutdown.

So why are Senators Lee, Cruz, and Paul leading this fight? Why is Tea Party Patriots standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them? Because Senator Coburn’s analysis is incomplete.

Yes, Obamacare is partially funded through mandatory spending, which can’t be stopped in a traditional, so-called “clean” Continuing Resolution (CR) – essentially, a CR that holds to the prior year’s spending levels. However, as Heritage Action’s Russ Vought pointed out, riders are regularly attached to CRs, and in this case a rider preventing the funding of Obamacare’s mandatory spending components could easily be attached.

In his floor speech, Senator Coburn said he would support riders to a CR impacting Obamacare. This is essentially what the delaying strategy is – attaching riders to the expected CR.

Regarding overriding a Presidential veto, this is all about messaging. Senator Coburn has unintentionally given the President and his allies in Congress and the media all the ammunition they need to declare fiscal conservatives intransigent and the like. In fact, the goal of this effort is to avoid a government shutdown.

Yes, it takes 67 votes in the Senate to override a veto. But if the messaging is done correctly, this won’t be an effort that turns back on conservatives. In fact, proper messaging would inform the American people of where blame lies for any government shutdown: with President Obama, who will delay implementation of the law where it benefits him and his political allies, but not for Average Joe Americans. And with the right pressure from the American people, President Obama will not dare shut down the government over his special interest-motivated delays of the law.

Regarding the Congressional Research Service report Senator Coburn cited, again, he is accidentally giving ammunition to Obamacare’s supporters. The intention of Senators Lee, Cruz, Paul, and the rest – as well as Tea Party Patriots – is to keep the government running without Obamacare funding. Shutting down the government is, under ideal circumstances, merely an academic argument. However, it’s an academic point the media (and now Senator Coburn, many Democrats, and some other Republicans) are using to turn the American people against this last chance effort to prevent Obamacare from devastating the country.

The fiscal credentials of Senator Coburn are encouraging. For years he was one of the few actual fiscal conservatives in Congress, against bipartisan overspending.  Oklahoma Tea Party Patriots State Coordinator Matthew Vermillion, however, is disappointed in his state’s junior senator:

In his interview with York, Senator Coburn said shutting down the government will hurt the GOP in 2014, and indicated it could destroy the Republican Party. Yet it was Senator Coburn who supported the 1995 shutdown when he was in the House. It was Senator Coburn who opposed Iraq War spending in 2005, and the debt ceiling raise in 2006. He said in 2011 that Congress should be in jail. Now, when his vote is absolutely critical, he is abandoning the exact kind of legislative mechanisms he has used for years.

Regarding who will get the blame for a potential government shutdown, it’s President Obama who has admitted Obamacare is not ready for prime time. It’s he who illegally delayed the employer mandate. Even his union allies are standing against him on this. Yet Senator Coburn is giving ammunition to the President instead of fiscal conservatives.

This is not the Senator Coburn I have proudly watched represent me for years. I hope he comes back before it’s too late.

Senator Coburn is not the only prominent Republican kowtowing to the “government shutdown” rhetoric – Speaker Boehner did so on Tuesday – but his articulate opposition is causing a great deal of heartache for Obamacare’s opponents. His correct fear that blame for a shutdown will prevent fiscal conservatives (and Republicans in general) from winning House, Senate, and Presidential elections in 2014 and 2016 is only relevant if the blame falls on fiscal conservatives. By pre-emptively putting blame for a potential government shutdown on Obamacare’s opponents, he all but gives the media and Democrats in Washington a “Get out of jail free” card for their culpability in any shutdown that takes place.

Unlike most opponents of the defunding strategy, Senator Coburn is not part of the establishment. He is not a “shiny object” Republican. But his opposition to delaying Obamacare via defunding is wrong, and is already being used by the media to help solidify Obamacare as near-permanent law in America.