Senate Republicans attempted during a special closed-door meeting on Tuesday to engender some sense of unity amid lingering caucus divisions over Obamacare funding.
Republican leaders and rank-and-file members delivered their unity plea even as a small band of conservatives continued to browbeat their GOP colleagues in an effort to pressure them to join a filibuster of the House-passed budget bill, which if successful could lead to a government shutdown. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, was among those who urged Republicans to set aside internal disagreements over tactics for blocking Obamacare, and train their fire on the Democrats.
“We’re totally unified in wanting to repeal Obamacare, we’d all like to see it defunded. And so it’s, how can you develop a unified strategy, a unified position that puts us back on the high ground of talking about how harmful Obamacare is going to be,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said upon exiting the meeting. “Those are the issues we ought to be discussing rather than interparty squabbles.”
Sources familiar with the meeting said that about a dozen or so senators spoke during the private Republican gathering, which included a discussion about parliamentary procedure and options for how to approach the continuing resolution approved by the House last Friday. The package defunds the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s prized legislative achievement, but would ensure that the government has enough money to continue operating through Dec. 15.
However, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, who have led the drive to defund Obamacare through this must-pass legislation, are pushing Republicans to filibuster the bill. They support the House package.
But if 60 senators vote to end debate on the measure later this week — which would be a vote in favor of defunding Obamacare — that would set the stage for Senate Democrats to restore Obamacare funding to the package via a simple majority vote. Most Senate Republicans are validly worried that it would be hard to explain to voters why the GOP blocked a bill it supports, even though doing so contributed to a possible government shutdown.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the conference vice chairman and an opponent of the Cruz-Lee strategy to leverage a government shutdown in an attempt to defund Obamacare, speculated that the most of the minority caucus could unify over the next few days. Only 15 senators are signatory to the Lee letter vowing not to support a government funding bill that includes money for the Affordable Care Act.
“I’m not sure that, as the week goes on, that the final vote to get [off] the bill that the House has sent over, doesn’t also become a less divisive vote for Republicans with more Republicans voting for it,” Blunt said. “This is the rare occasion when the majority leader is bringing a bill to the floor that we’re for … Are we going to vote on this bill, that we support, or not?”
But Cruz and his allies were unmoved.
They resisted suggestions from some of their GOP colleagues that they not stretch out the Senate debate so as to give House Republicans more time to act before midnight Tuesday, when the government would shut down absent approved additional spending. They also declined to stop attacking Republicans and focus on the Democrats.
In a filibuster-style speech on the Senate floor that was still ongoing late Tuesday evening, Cruz devoted much of his remarks to castigating his fellow Republicans for lacking the courage and political fortitude to risk a voter backlash over something as important as blunting the Affordable Care Act. The law remains unpopular, but polls also show that voters disapprove of the Cruz-Lee defund strategy.
"Anyone who votes to cut off debate on this bill is voting to let Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid implement Obamacare," Cruz said.