The Magazine

Leading from Behind

Mike Lee takes point against Obamacare.

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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On Wednesday, July 17, Senator Mike Lee strode onto the Senate floor and called for Republicans to defund Obamacare. His case was simple. If the White House is calling for a yearlong delay in the implementation of two key elements of the law—the employer mandate and verification of eligibility for subsidies on health care exchanges—then Congress shouldn’t fund it.

Lee’s speech emphasized the fundamental unfairness of delaying the employer mandate but enforcing the individual mandate. “Republicans in Congress must now stand up for the individuals and families who do not have the money, lobbyists, and connections to get this administration’s attention,” he said.

And we should do so using one of the few constitutional powers Congress still guards—its power of the purse. As long as President Obama selectively enforces Obama­care, no annual appropriations bill or continuing resolution should further fund implementation of the law. In other words, if the president won’t follow it, the American people shouldn’t fund it.

It was a bold move. And if ever there were a time for being aggressive, it’s now.

For years, health-policy experts, economists, and Americans with basic math skills have understood that the Affordable Care Act wouldn’t work as advertised. It simply wasn’t going to be possible to (a) provide insurance to 30 million more Americans, (b) improve the quality of care, and (c) save money.

In the years since the law passed, the contradictions of the undertaking created a growing number of fissures in the foundation of Obamacare—obvious to those looking closely but largely unnoticed by the masses. That has changed in recent weeks. With longtime supporters openly questioning the viability of the reforms and the administration itself tacitly acknowledging major flaws, the edifice of Obamacare has begun to crumble. It’s a big moment.

Lee’s low-key, six-minute speech didn’t garner much attention. Neither did media appearances he made later that week to push the idea. Nor did the letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid on the subject that he drafted with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—at least at first.

As Lee went about enlisting support for his strategy, one after another of his colleagues agreed to sign the letter to Reid, including two members of the GOP leadership in the Senate—Minority Whip John Cornyn and John Thune, chairman of the Republican conference. But then two things happened: The mainstream media began to report that Lee was pushing for a government shutdown, and the momentum of his effort first stalled and then reversed.

By Wednesday, July 24, five of the seventeen senators who had agreed to sign the letter asked to have their names removed—Kelly Ayotte, John Boozman, John Cornyn, Roger Wicker, and Mark Kirk.

This wasn’t a coincidence. Sources tell The Weekly Standard that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell made clear he didn’t like Lee’s approach and the fact that media reports were suggesting Republicans were eager for a shutdown.

(A letter in the House drafted by North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows, similar to Lee’s, had 66 signatures at press time—more than a quarter of the House Republican caucus. Meadows says that number is “growing daily,” despite the fact that he and his colleagues haven’t done much pushing.)

Lee says he anticipated some Republican opposition to his plan but didn’t expect the intensity of the campaign to stop him. “The fact that some are pushing back as hard as they are is surprising,” he tells me. He is frustrated that some of those in leadership who are quietly thwarting his efforts haven’t come up with an alternative. When I ask him if he could describe leadership’s preferred strategy, he responds: “No. There is no plan. This is one of the problems I had. They can criticize this plan, but they have offered us nothing.”

By week’s end, Lee had become the chief target of scorn from the conventional wisdom set. “When Mike Lee pledges to try to shut down the government unless President Obama knuckles under and defunds Obamacare entirely, it is not news—it is par for the course for the take-no-prisoners extremist senator from Utah,” wrote National Journal’s Norm Ornstein, a onetime centrist congressional expert whose lamentations on angry partisanship have, as the forgoing suggests, all the hallmarks of an angry partisan. The “unprecedented” move is tantamount to “blackmail,” Ornstein argued, blasting Republicans who discouraged the NFL from promoting the law. “What is going on now to sabotage Obamacare is not treasonous—just sharply beneath any reasonable standards of elected officials with the fiduciary responsibility of governing.”

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