WASHINGTON — Shortly after President Obama started his second term, a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin R. Meese gathered in the capital to plot strategy. Their push to repeal Obama’s health law was going nowhere, and they desperately needed a new plan.
Out of that session, held one morning in a location the members insist on keeping secret, came a little-noticed “blueprint to defunding Obamacare,” signed by Meese and leaders of more than three dozen conservative groups.
It articulated a take-no-prisoners legislative strategy that had long percolated in conservative circles: that Republicans could derail the health overhaul if conservative lawmakers were willing to push fellow Republicans — including their cautious leaders — into cutting off funding for the entire federal government.
“We felt very strongly at the start of this year that the House needed to use the power of the purse,” said one coalition member, Michael A. Needham, who runs Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
He added, “We felt very strongly that this was a fight we were going to pick.”
Last week the country witnessed the fallout from that strategy: a budget standoff that shuttered much of the federal bureaucracy and unsettled the nation.
To many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law since its passage in 2010 — waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics, and interconnections than is commonly known.
Although the law’s opponents say that shutting down the government was not their objective, the activists anticipated that a shutdown could occur — and worked with members of the Tea Party caucus in Congress who were excited about drawing a red line against a bill they despise.
A defunding “tool kit” created in early September included talking points that addressed the question, “What happens when you shut down the government and you are blamed for it?”
The tool kit answer is exactly what House Republicans say today: They do not want to shut down the government; they just want to stop Obamacare.
With polls showing Americans deeply divided over the law, conservatives believe the public is behind them. The current budget brinkmanship is just one aspect of a well-financed, broad-based assault on the health law, Obama’s signature legislative initiative. The law’s opponents have spread cash across an array of tax-exempt organizations, some of them with murky provenance.
The billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, have been deeply involved with financing the overall effort.
A group linked to the Kochs, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, disbursed more than $200 million in 2012 to nonprofit organizations involved in the fight. Included was $5 million to a new group geared to young adults that ran an Internet advertisement showing a menacing Uncle Sam figure popping up between a woman’s legs during a gynecological exam.
The groups have also sought to pressure vulnerable Republican members of Congress with scorecards keeping track of their health care votes and distributed scripts for phone calls to congressional offices, sample letters to editors, and pre-written Twitter offerings and Facebook comments for followers to present as their own.
On Capitol Hill, the advocates found willing partners in Tea Party conservatives, who have repeatedly threatened to shut down the government if they do not get their way on spending issues.
This time they said they were so alarmed by the health law that they were willing to risk a shutdown over it.
Not all of the groups have been on board with the defunding campaign.
Some, like the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity, which spent $5.5 million on health care television advertisements over the past three months, are more focused on sowing public doubts about the law. But all have a common goal, which is to cripple a measure that Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican and leader of the defunding effort, has likened to a horror movie.
“We view this as a long-term effort,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. He said that his group, which receives funding from the Koch brothers, expects to spend “tens of millions” on a “multifront effort” that includes working to prevent states from expanding Medicaid under the law.
His group’s goal is not to defund the law. “We want to see this law repealed,” Phillips said.
The crowd was raucous at the Hilton Anatole, just north of downtown Dallas, when Needham’s group, Heritage Action, arrived on a Tuesday in August during a “Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour.” Nearly 1,000 people turned out to hear two stars of the Tea Party movement: Cruz and Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator who runs the Heritage Foundation.
“You’re here because now is the single best time we have to defund Obamacare,” declared Cruz, “This is a fight we can win.”