Sen. John Thune declined Tuesday morning to reveal whether he would join the Ted Cruz-led filibuster to block the House-passed budget bill that would defund Obamacare but prevent a government shutdown on Oct. 1.
Whether the South Dakota Republican joins his GOP colleague from Texas in attempting to block Democrats from stripping out the Obamacare defunding language from the House bill could prove significant. Thune, the minority conference chairman and third-ranking Senate Republican, was the only member of leadership to sign the letter spearheaded by Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, advocating defunding Obamacare through a continuing resolution to fund the government beyond Sept. 30.
Only 15 Senate Republicans signed the letter. Thune joined Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, in support of the House bill and against a complicated procedural maneuver that would attempt to save the defunding provision, but could further undermine a strategy that is already on life support. Senate Democrats hold the majority and too few are susceptible to the kind of political pressure that might force them to abandon Obamacare.
“I’m not ready to announce anything yet. We’ve got a bunch of meetings today,” Thune told the Washington Examiner. “I want to get a chance, as [a] conference, to work through some of this stuff, and then I’ll probably say something then.”
Thune, since winning his Senate seat in 2004, has managed to take a conservative but pragmatic approach to governing, maintaining strong credentials with the Republican base while forging relationships with the moderate elements of his caucus.
In a previous interview, Thune stood by his support for defunding the Affordable Care Act through the budget process. The law is President Obama's prized legislative achievement. But Thune also expressed concern that the campaign being led by Cruz and Lee could split Republicans on an issue that has always united the party. As conference chairman, Thune's job is message development and devising a rhetorical strategy that can work for the greatest number of Senate Republicans.
On Tuesday, Thune reiterated that his priority of finding the most unifying path forward for Senate Republicans and signaled that his biggest goal was helping the GOP win back the Senate in 2014. Such comments quite possibly betray Thune’s anxiety that a government shutdown, even over an unpopular health care law, might do more harm than good to those ambitions.
“The one thing that is unifying is that we all support getting rid of Obamacare. … Tactically, there are different views about what’s the best way to do that. I think what we have to do is play the long game here,” Thune said. “To me, that’s winning the majority in ’14, and I think we have to be thinking about what puts our conference in the best position to make that happen.”