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Tea Party wing of GOP unbowed by shutdown debacle

Still gunning for the health care law

“This fight is not over. It has really only just begun,” said Senator Marco Rubio.

AP/file

“This fight is not over. It has really only just begun,” said Senator Marco Rubio.

WASHINGTON — Just days after the federal government reopened in spite of them and after a possible worldwide fiscal calamity was averted, Tea Party Republicans appear anything but chastened, vowing to continue their high-stakes fight to dismantle or delay key elements of President Obama’s health law.

“I will continue to do anything I can to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare,” Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party movement favorite from Texas whom many in both parties blame for the recent shutdown, wrote on Twitter on Friday afternoon.

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Several other Republican lawmakers — as well as conservative groups that finance their campaigns — also appear to be dug in, doubling down in an aggressive fight against “Obamacare,” even as GOP leaders have cautioned against renewing the politically damaging strategy of threatening another government shutdown.

In a statement to the Globe on Friday, Representative John Fleming of Louisiana said, “I am not backing down from the Obamacare fight.”

Arch-conservatives also are turning against Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a hard-boiled Obama opponent from Kentucky, demonstrating the intensity of their fervor.

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Attempting to soothe fears, McConnell has indicated in recent interviews that he would not allow a rehash of the twin fiscal crises early next year, when funding for the government runs out Jan. 15 and the debt ceiling is reached Feb. 7. “A government shutdown is off the table,” McConnell told the National Review. “We’re not going to do it.”

McConnell is already paying a price. On Friday, the Senate Conservatives Fund, the outside political group that is most closely tied to the defund-Obamacare-at-all-costs strategy, responded by endorsing McConnell’s Republican primary challenger, Matt Bevin, a Louisville businessman.

Bevin “is not afraid to stand up to the establishment and he will do what it takes to stop Obamacare,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the fund, which is closely associated with former Tea Party movement senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who is president of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

DeMint wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Friday defending the Tea Party movement’s tactic of bringing government to a halt in its fight against the health law, known formally as the Affordable Care Act.

“Delaying implementation by withholding funds from the law that is proven to be unfair, unworkable and unaffordable is a reasonable and necessary fight,” DeMint wrote. “For the past three months, Obamacare and its failings have been front and center in the national debate. Its disastrous launch was spotlighted by our defund struggle, not overshadowed, as some contend.”

Many mainstream Republicans, including Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Susan Collins of Maine, have faulted the Tea Party movement strategy for drawing attention away from the glitch-ridden rollout of the health law’s new insurance marketplaces, which debuted the first day of the government shutdown. Instead, almost all media attention was focused on the shutdown.

Now, widespread technical failures of the federal websites where Americans are supposed to begin shopping for health insurance will serve as fresh ammunition for Republicans arguing for a delay or the repeal of the law’s requirement that individuals purchase coverage.

“This fight is not over. It has really only just begun,” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Tea Party Republican, vowed in the hours before the Senate passed a deal to raise the debt ceiling. “Now, Obamacare is going to start hurting real people, in real ways. And when it does, there is going to be a mad scramble in this town to fix it or get rid of it.”

While Cruz and Rubio did not explicitly threaten to shutter the government again in January in order to dismantle the health law, that was the stated threat of some hard-core holdouts who support them.

“You have to use every opportunity,” said Adam Brandon, executive vice president at FreedomWorks, a Tea Party movement group. “Frankly, this is the new normal. It’s embarrassing that that’s where the government is now, that we have to use these extreme measures to force people to the bargaining table.”

Democrats seemed to almost dare Republicans to reprise their shutdown showdown, which heavily damaged the GOP brand as most Americans in public opinion polls cast the blame on Republicans.

“The American people will not put up with that,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid said Friday in an interview to air Sunday with Univision. “And if this happens again — I don’t think it will, but if it does — I think the House of Representatives will go Democratic.’’

The trouble for the Republican Party is that, far from hurting the image of some hardliners like Cruz, the shutdown appears to have enhanced their standing. He and others have benefited from the support of outside groups while engaging in a fund-raising frenzy and reaping a publicity bonanza.

Tea Party movement groups say they are going after smaller victories than a complete defunding of the health law, such as a one-year delay of the mandate requiring most Americans to purchase health insurance, and abolishing federal health care contributions for members of Congress and their staffs.

“Instead of a big blunderbuss, these fights are going to be more like rifle shots,” Brandon said. “Don’t be surprised if starting next week you hear the drumbeat start up on that.”

The deal to end the shutdown set up a bipartisan budget conference to attempt to negotiate a broader budget deal. The starting positions for those talks are the House and Senate budget plans passed by both chambers earlier this year.

The House plan, written by Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, assumes the repeal of the health law, something Obama has repeatedly vowed to veto.

Ryan, who wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that became the catalyst for negotiations during the government shutdown, was heavily criticized by conservative groups for not explicitly calling for a repeal of the health law.

In response to the complaints, Ryan said that any plan to reduce the deficit would need to include changes to all entitlements — including the health law.

Conservative groups such as Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm for the Heritage Foundation, are calling for congressional hearings highlighting how they say the law harms individuals whose insurance premiums are rising or those whose work hours have been cut as a result.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has scheduled a hearing next Thursday on the health law’s rollout, titled “Implementation Failures: Didn’t Know or Didn’t Disclose?”

Obama administration officials have thus far refused to participate in the hearing, prompting committee chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, to lash out at Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Thursday.

“The rollout has been a complete mess, beyond the worst-case scenario, and yet those administration officials responsible have indicated they will not be available to testify next week,” Upton said in a statement.

Heritage Action said it plans to hold accountable those lawmakers who voted for the health law or defended it during the shutdown, and has already spent $400,000 in digital ads during the three-week shutdown targeting vulnerable Democrats in Republican-leaning states, including Senators Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mark Begich in Alaska, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, and Mark Pryor in Arkansas.

“You’re going to be seeing more of this,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action. “At some point, they are either going to have to break with Democratic leadership or they are going to face a tough election come November 2014.”

Some Tea Party Republicans were not as open about their strategies for dismantling Obama’s signature domestic achievement. The office of Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the leaders in the fight to defund the health care law, declined to discuss details of their plan.

“Maybe we do have ideas, have discussed it, and are unwilling to lay out internal legislative strategy with the media,” wrote Brian Phillips, a Lee spokesman, in an e-mail to the Globe. “Kinda like how Belichick doesn’t tell you on Monday how he plans to beat his opponents next Sunday.”

Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.
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