Oh my: McConnell, Cornyn won't join Cruz and Lee in filibustering House's CR to defund ObamaCare

It’s a testament to how confusing the Cruz/Lee tactics in the Senate have become that when I tweeted out the McConnell news a few minutes ago, someone tweeted back that they couldn’t tell if that news was good or bad.

If you’re with Cruz and Lee, the answer is: Bad. And surprising to me.

An aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the Kentucky senator will vote to allow an up-or-down vote in the Senate on the House bill to defund Obamacare.

“Senator McConnell supports the House Republicans’ bill and will not vote to block it, since it defunds Obamacare and funds the government without increasing spending by a penny,” the McConnell aide writes in an email. “He will also vote against any amendment that attempts to add Obamacare funding back into the House Republicans’ bill. If and when the Majority Leader goes down that path, Washington Democrats will have to decide—without hiding behind a procedural vote—whether or not to split with their leadership and join Republicans and their constituents in opposing the re-insertion of Obamacare funding into the House-passed bill.”

Everyone understand what’s going on here? It’d be easier to click the first link up top and read that rather than have me run through it here, but to put it simply, the only way the “defund” caucus can stop Reid from amending the House bill to strip out the provision that defunds ObamaCare is to filibuster the House bill when Reid brings it to the floor to open the debate. That’s counterintuitive because Cruz and Lee support the House bill and normally you only filibuster stuff from the other party that you hate. In this case, though, due to Senate rules, once the bill passes the initial cloture vote and comes to the floor, Democrats can remove the defunding stuff via a simple majority vote of 51 senators. There are 54 Democrats so that’s a relatively easy lift (although not so easy for red-state Dems like Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu who’ll have to swallow this crap sandwich by voting yes a year before they face reelection).

By filibustering the bill before it comes to the floor, though, a mere 41 Republicans can block Reid from amending the bill to take the defunding provisions out, which would paralyze the chamber and probably lead to a shutdown. What the plan is after that, I’m not sure; Reid’s not scared of a shutdown, since Democrats feel sure that Republicans will end up more damaged from it than they will. If anything, Pryor and Landrieu will probably be relieved that they’re spared an up-or-down vote on defunding by a successful filibuster. And even if the government does shut down, ObamaCare will still go into effect because the money’s already been appropriated as part of the original O-Care law. Bottom line, though: To have any chance of stopping a “clean” Democratic CR in the Senate, you need 41 Republicans willing to filibuster. And now, here’s the minority leader saying he won’t be part of that.

His chief deputy won’t be part of it either:

A well-connected Senate Republican source says John Cornyn, the second-ranking GOP lawmaker in the Senate, will not go along with a plan advocated by colleagues Ted Cruz and Mike Lee to filibuster a House-passed bill that would fund the federal government but defund Obamacare.

The source says Cornyn will support a bill that defunds Obamacare, but Cornyn will not go along with a plan to filibuster that same bill. “Cornyn will not vote with Cruz on this,” the source says. “It doesn’t make any sense. He [Cruz] has lost the messaging war on this. He has lost the strategy. We’re not going to go along with this.”

Cornyn opposes Obamacare. He supports defunding Obamacare. But he does not support the filibuster plan. Added the source: “Ted Cruz can go out there and explain how he’s going to block a bill that defunds Obamacare, but we’re not going to.”

The surprise, obviously, is that you’ve got two Republicans who are up for reelection next year whom tea partiers already disdain deciding to pull the plug on Ted Cruz’s procedural play on his very first move. Why they would do that when there are probably already six other Senate Republicans willing to cross the aisle and give Reid the 60 votes he needs to beat Cruz’s filibuster, I don’t know. All it does is increase the odds of them being primaried. Per the boldfaced line, though, they’re counting on voters to be deeply confused about exactly what’s going on here; when they’re called out for not voting with Ted, they can say with a straight face that all they did was vote for the House bill that defunds ObamaCare. They could also note, correctly, that by refusing to filibuster they made life more difficult for vulnerable Democrats like Pryor, Landrieu, Begich, and Hagan by forcing them to cast an up-or-down vote on stripping out the defunding provisions. That might be worth something to grassroots righties who are eager to reclaim the Senate.

And of course the extent of the backlash depends on some degree to whether Cruz decides to go after them hard for this publicly. My guess is he won’t. For one thing, he’s always said that it’s the House, not the Senate, that has the real leverage in forcing Democrats to deal on ObamaCare, and he’s right about that. Whether or not defunding succeeds depends upon how firm Boehner and his caucus are, not McConnell and his. Beyond that, Cruz really can’t lose at this point no matter what does or doesn’t happen in the Senate. He’s a tea-party hero for pushing an “if you will it, you can do it” approach to stopping O-Care; if McConnell and Cornyn thwart him, he can just cite that as evidence that less steely Republicans simply don’t have the will — and even better, he won’t have to risk political damage to himself by leading a shutdown-causing filibuster in the Senate. That’s McConnell’s real goal here, I think: He’s going to dump this back in Boehner’s lap by allowing Reid to pass his “clean” CR, and then when House conservatives demand that Boehner shut down the government, Boehner can say that the media will kill them over it by contrasting their approach with the more “reasonable, compromising” Republicans of the Senate like McConnell. Everyone wins (except House conservatives), to the extent that finding a way out of this now can be said to constitute “winning.”

Update: A commenter asked why I’m surprised that two establishmentarians like McConnell and Cornyn would vote this way. Because, quite simply, I expected them to pander to tea partiers by voting with Cruz, secure in the knowledge that other Republicans who don’t have to face reelection next year like Coburn, McCain, Collins, Kirk, etc, would vote with Reid to defeat the filibuster anyway. McConnell could have had his cake and eaten it too. Instead he’s anti-filibuster. Odd.

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