Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) find themselves in the curious position this week of encouraging their GOP colleagues to filibuster the stopgap government funding (and Obamacare defunding) resolution that they urged the House to pass.
Cruz and Lee are the leaders of a tea party-powered movement to bar funding in the coming fiscal year for the 2010 healthcare law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They prevailed in the House, where Republicans hold a solid majority, but face extremely long odds in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
On Monday, Cruz made two long-shot efforts to avoid having to filibuster the House's funding measure, HJ Res 59. But they required the Senate's unanimous consent, and so died when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) objected. (More on those later.)
Thanks to that chamber's filibuster rules, a cohesive minority can force the majority to make concessions in order to get bills passed. As long as they have at least 41 votes, Republicans can stop Democrats from taking up the House-passed continuing resolution or bringing it to a vote. The GOP has 46 votes in the Senate, although not all of them seem ready to line up with Cruz's faction.
There are at least two problems for the defund Obamacare team, though. And either one is significant enough to foil their plans.
First, the "optics," as they like to say in Washington, are terrible. By filibustering the House's continuing resolution, Senate Republicans would seem to be trying to kill a measure that would both keep the government operating (which the public likes) and defund Obamacare (which Republicans really like). Yet without a filibuster to up the ante, Democrats can by a simple majority vote remove the Obamacare language and send a "clean" CR back to the House.
Second, the filibuster threat works only on bills that the majority wants to pass more than the minority does. In the case of the House's CR, the shoe's on the other foot. Cruz wants to pass the House version as is. Democrats oppose it unless the Obamacare provisions are removed. If the Senate does nothing and much of the government shuts down on Oct. 1, Democrats seem confident that the public will blame Cruz and his colleagues.
Then again, Obamacare's opponents may be buoyed by recent Pew Research Center and Gallup polls showing that their constituents, at least, would rather defund Obamacare than maintain funding for federal agencies. And the effects of a shutdown would be muted by federal rules that keep more than half of the federal workforce on the job -- even without pay -- because they are "essential" to crucial government functions.
The conventional wisdom in Washington remains that the freshman senator from Canada the Lone Star State can't win this fight because he won't be able to persuade enough Republicans to support a filibuster. The first test will come when Reid seeks the 60 votes needed to start moving the CR through the chamber, which could happen Wednesday.
On Monday, Cruz sought unanimous consent to approve the CR as passed by the House, without amendment or debate. Reid objected, noting not just the Obamacare language but also a misleading provision that would authorize the Treasury to make principal-and-interest payments to federal bondholders and the Social Security Trust Fund through mid-December even if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling. Cruz claimed that the provision would guard against a default, but that's disingenuous; Wall Street would still rebel if Congress failed to raise the debt limit and the Treasury started stiffing other federal creditors.
He also sought unanimous consent to proceed to debate the CR immediately but require 60 votes to approve any amendments. Reid objected, saying most lawmakers and their constituents wanted to see fewer barriers to legislation, not more.
Afterward, Cruz argued that the amendments "clarified" the debate because they showed his support for the House CR. But it will be hard for him to paint Democrats as the ones trying to shut down the government when he's the one filibustering.
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