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MSNBC TV
updated 7/30/2013 12:16:23 AM ET 2013-07-30T04:16:23

The Tea Partiers may yet succeed at shutting down the government over health care reform. But their own GOP allies predict devastating political blowback.

If you’re weary of the GOP’s endless efforts to repeal Obamacare, don’t despair. Sen. Marco Rubio has turned the losing crusade against health care reform into weird new parlor game. You could call it “Who’s the Hostage Taker?”

Last week, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah pledged to shut down the government this fall unless President Obama agrees to defund (i.e., kill) the Affordable Care Act. The House of Representatives is always game for high jinx, and Lee claimed that a growing alliance of U.S. Senators—including Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul—was prepared to hold the federal budget hostage. “This is the last stop before Obamacare fully kicks in on January 1 of next year for us to refuse to fund it,” Lee declared on Fox and Friends last Monday. “If Republicans in both houses simply refuse to vote for any continuing [budget] resolution that contains further funding . . . we can stop it.”

That was a bigger “if” than the Tea Partiers had bargained for. Lee claimed that “13 or 14” Senate Republicans had signed a joint ultimatum and that “the number is growing.” But several initial backers, including Minority Whip John Cornyn, quickly withdrew their names from an ultimatum addressed to Majority Leader Harry Reid. And by the end of the week, prominent Senate Republicans were openly dismissing the whole scheme as stupid, “dishonest” and “dangerous.”

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina called it “the dumbest idea” he’d ever heard. Speaking on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri denounced hostage-taking as a bad negotiating strategy. Even anti-Obamacare stalwart Tom Coburn of Oklahoma slammed the idea. “I’m getting phone calls from Oklahoma saying, ‘Support Mike Lee,’” Coburn told the Washington Examiner. “I’m ramming right back: ‘Support him in destroying the Republican Party?’ The strategy that has been laid out is a good way for Republicans to lose the House.”

Coburn is old enough to remember 1995, when a Republican Congress shut down the government during a standoff with President Bill Clinton. The legislators retreated in the face of public outrage, and Clinton emerged as the resolute hero who had refused to be blackmailed. “I’d be leading the charge if I thought this would work,” Coburn told the Examiner. “But it will not work . . . The president is never going to sign a bill defunding Obamacare.”

The congressional leadership seems to understand that—neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell nor House Speaker John Boehner has endorsed the shutdown strategy—so this week we have Sens. Lee and Rubio running in different directions to save face.

Lee is simply walking back the wildest of last week’s threats. “Maybe we can’t repeal [Obamacare] right now,” he conceded on Fox News Sunday, “but . . . if we delay its funding we can stop its consequences for now.” (Translation: If we reduce the ransom, our shutdown threats may still be worth something.)

Rubio, meanwhile, is trying his hand at “Who’s the Hostage Taker?” Just last Thursday, he was imploring his party to embrace the role proudly. “We have a chance to stop this, and . . . it comes in September when we have to pass a short-term budget in this chamber,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor. “To my Republican colleagues, I would just say this: if we’re not going to draw a line in the sand on Obamacare, we have no lines in the sand. If this issue is not important enough for us to draw a line in the sand, what issue is?”

Unlike Lee, Rubio is sticking to his kill-it-at-all-costs rhetoric. But he now now claims that the president is the dangerous extremist who may soon paralyze the country in order to impose his will on it. “We know President Obama will resist [killing health care reform]” Rubio wrote in a Monday blog post for Red State. “He will insist on shutting down government unless ObamaCare is fully funded. But we simply cannot continue to pour money into this rapidly imploding program.”

By Rubio’s reasoning, Obamacare “will lead to America’s decline, because it . . . seeks to remake America in others’ images when it is America that has always been the example for other nations.” To prevent this desecration, “we need the American people to stand with us in demanding that not another cent be spent on implementing ObamaCare.” If Congress works that demand into a budget resolution, the argument goes, it’s President Obama who will have a decision to make: “sign it and keep the government open, or veto it and shut down the government.”

Never mind that the system Rubio wants to preserve is the most costly and least effective in the developed world. Forget that the Affordable Care Act has already curbed the health insurance industry’s worst abuses and extended coverage to a generation of young adults. And set aside the fact that it will soon place basic care within reach for millions of uninsured Americans by expanding Medicaid and spawning a new market for individual plans.

All of that aside, the law that Rubio wants to kill has been on the books for three years. It has passed both houses of Congress, the president has signed it into law and the Supreme Court has upheld it. As elected members of Congress, Rubio and friends have a right to oppose it, and a sworn obligation to uphold it. They may yet succeed at shutting the government, but if history is any guide, they won’t succeed at shifting the blame.

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