ATLANTA — So far, only a minority of Capitol Hill Republicans are demanding the next federal spending bill not include a dime for the Affordable Care Act.
But the issue carries added heft in right-leaning Georgia and already has created fissures that could help define GOP politics in the election year to come, forcing candidates to take sides and pushing tea party elements to use their clout.
At a rally at the Georgia Capitol on Tuesday, tea party heavyweights warned wayward lawmakers that past resistance to the law known as Obamacare wasn’t enough.
“Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson can stop this disaster. Why won’t they?” said Brent Bozell, an influential conservative activist. “Why should hard-working Americans have to pay for this train wreck? The only way to stop this train wreck is for them to say, ‘enough is enough,’ and defund this monstrosity.”
Chambliss retires next year, but Isakson faces re-election in 2016, making him a tea party target. Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, noted Isakson had previously voted dozens of times to repeal, dismantle or delay provisions of the health care law.
“If you vote once to defund and then turn around and vote to use our hard-earned taxpayer dollars on this law, you’re voting for and in favor of this law you claim to want to kill and repeal,” she said. “Which is it, Johnny? Are you in favor of or against the law? You cannot have it both ways.”
The defund debate is the latest tactical confrontation between Republican hard-liners, most of whom are newer to Congress, and party leadership. The August congressional break has seen rallies from conservative and liberal groups on both sides of the issue, as well as some testy town hall meetings with lawmakers.
Fourteen conservative senators and 80 House members have signed letters advocating the GOP refuse to pass another spending bill if it includes any money to implement the health law.
Government funding expires Sept. 30, and if Congress cannot agree on a funding extension, known as a “continuing resolution,” then parts of the federal government would shut down. Loath to undercut the signature achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency, Democrats dismiss defunding the Affordable Care Act out of hand.
Isakson said in an interview that risking a shutdown is unwise, particularly considering that most of the health-law money is considered mandatory and not covered by any continuing resolution. So if the attack succeeds, it still would not kill the law.
Isakson said he has voted against authorizing and funding the law many times, and he would like another vote to defund it, just not attached to a must-pass spending bill. He rejected the idea that this fall is lawmakers’ final opportunity to draw a line in the sand before people start enrolling in state-based health insurance exchanges.
“I don’t think it’s the last chance to get rid of Obamacare,” Isakson said. “I think those chances will come because it will crumble under its own weight given the problems (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) is already having.”
He shrugged off the coordinated efforts of conservative pressure groups such as Heritage Action for America and FreedomWorks, saying his repeated votes against the ACA speak for themselves.
“There are a lot of people trying to raise money off it,” Isakson said. “Those who know what my record is, I’ve got a perfect record. So I haven’t gotten too many calls on it.”
U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a Georgia Republican, has a more urgent view of the fall budget battle. Graves wrote a bill to block Obamacare funding in any spending bill.
“This is our chance to stop this train wreck,” Graves said at a recent GOP rally. “This isn’t about a government shutdown. It’s about stopping Obamacare. We have only a few short weeks to go, but we’re going to get it done.”
Rep. Tom Price of Georgia took a more nuanced approach. He argued at a recent health care forum that behind-the-scenes outreach by Republican leaders coupled with quiet support from Democrats could persuade Obama to delay by a year the October deadline to establish the exchanges. He’s not against the defund option, but said the delay is more realistic.
“The main pushback has been out of the administration. Are we pushing back? You bet we are. Because if you take any one component out of this, the whole thing doesn’t work,” said Price. “The delay for a year is a solution.”
The debate has split Georgia’s House Republicans down the middle, with five signing a letter urging House Speaker John Boehner to put forth a continuing resolution that defunds the health care law, and five sitting out.
Graves, Rep. Doug Collins and the trio of House members running for Senate next year -- Phil Gingrey, Paul Broun and Jack Kingston -- signed the letter, which pushed Boehner but did not issue a specific ultimatum to vote no on a bill that funds the law.
The issue is seeping into campaigns, too. The five main GOP contenders for next year’s open Senate seat support the move, while Democrat Michelle Nunn said the specter of a federal shutdown would be “hurtful” to the larger economy.
Former Rep. Bob Barr and state Sen. Barry Loudermilk, two candidates to succeed Gingrey, were both at the rally to support the defund effort. So was Brian Slowinski, a candidate for Broun’s Athens-based district.
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