WASHINGTON — Shortly after President Obama started his second term, a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese gathered in the capital to plot strategy. Their push to repeal Obama’s health law was going nowhere, and they needed a new plan.
Out of that session came a “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: Republicans could derail the health-care law if conservative lawmakers were willing to push fellow Republicans 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 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 crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010 — waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.
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 suggested answer was the one House Republicans give today: “We are simply calling to fund the entire government except for the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare.”
The current budget brinkmanship is the latest development in a well-financed, broad-based assault on the health law, mounted by groups across the conservative spectrum. Some, such as Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, are tea-party inspired. Others, such as Club for Growth, defend the free market. Some, such as Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty, both aimed at young adults, are upstarts.
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 Internet ads showing a creepy bigheaded Uncle Sam figure popping up between a woman’s legs during a gynecological exam and the same figure ominously snapping on a rubber glove behind a young man on an examination table.
The groups have also sought to pressure vulnerable Republican members of Congress with score cards keeping track of their health-care votes, burned faux “Obama-care cards” on college campuses 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.
One sample Twitter offering — “Obamacare is a train wreck” — is a common refrain for Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio.
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. (“This is exactly what the public wants,” Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, said on the eve of the shutdown.)
Sowing public doubts
Despite Bachmann’s comments, not all of the groups have been on board with the defunding campaign. Some, such as the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity, which spent $5.5 million on health-care television advertisements in 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 Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, 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 in Dallas when Needham’s group, Heritage Action, arrived in August for the second stop on a nine-city “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,” said Cruz, who would go on to rail against the law on the Senate floor in September with a monologue that ran for more than 21 hours. “This is a fight we can win.”
Although Cruz is new to the Senate, the tactic of “defunding” in Washington, D.C., is not. For years, Congress has banned the use of certain federal funds to pay for abortions, except in the case of incest and rape, by attaching the so-called Hyde Amendment to spending bills.
After the health law passed in 2010, Todd Tiahrt, then a Republican congressman from Kansas, proposed defunding bits and pieces of it. He said he spoke to Boehner’s staff about the idea, while the Supreme Court — which ultimately upheld the central provision of the law — was weighing its constitutionality.
“There just wasn’t the appetite for it at the time,” Tiahrt said in an interview. “They thought we don’t need to worry about it, because the Supreme Court will strike it down.”
But the idea of using the appropriations process to defund an entire federal program, particularly one as far-reaching as the health-care law, raised the stakes considerably.
In the three years since Obama signed the health measure, tea-party-inspired groups have mobilized, aided by a financing network that continues to grow.
A review of tax records, campaign-finance reports and corporate filings shows that hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised and spent since 2012 by organizations, many of them loosely connected, organizing opposition to the measure.
One of the biggest sources of conservative money is Freedom Partners, a tax-exempt “business league” that claims more than 200 members, each of whom pays at least $100,000 in dues. The Virginia-based group’s board is headed by a longtime executive of Koch Industries, the conglomerate run by the Koch brothers, who were among the original financiers of the tea-party movement. The Kochs declined to comment.
In the fight to shape public opinion, conservatives face well-organized liberal foes. Enroll America, a nonprofit group allied with the Obama White House, is waging a multistate campaign to persuade millions of the uninsured to buy coverage. The law’s supporters are also getting a huge boost from the insurance industry, which is expected to spend $1 billion on advertising to help sell the plans that it is offering on the exchanges.
“It is David versus Goliath,” said Phillips of Americans for Prosperity.
Little money, big splash
Conservatives are finding that, with relatively small advertising buys, they can make a splash. Generation Opportunity, the youth-oriented outfit behind the “Creepy Uncle Sam” ads, is spending $750,000 on that effort, aimed at dissuading young people — a cohort critical to the success of the health-care law — from signing up for insurance. Two other groups — FreedomWorks, with its “Burn Your Obamacare Card” protests, and Young Americans for Liberty — are also running campus events.
Generation Opportunity receives substantial backing from Freedom Partners, and appears ready to expand. Recently, Generation Opportunity moved into spacious new offices in Arlington, Va., where the exposed ductwork, Ikea chairs and pingpong table give off the feel of a Silicon Valley startup.
Its executive director, Evan Feinberg, 29, a former Capitol Hill aide and one-time instructor for a leadership institute founded by Charles Koch, said there would be more Uncle Sam ads, coupled with college campus visits.
“A lot of folks have asked us, ‘Are we trying to sabotage the law?’ ” Feinberg said in an interview last week. His answer echoes the Freedom Partners philosophy: “Our goal is to educate and empower young people.”
Although conservatives think the public will back them on defunding, a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 57 percent, a majority, disapproves of cutting off funding as a way to stop the law.
Even though the health exchanges are open for business, and despite criticism from fellow Republicans who view the “Defund Obamacare” strategy as politically damaging, Needham said last week that he felt good about what the groups had accomplished. “It really was a groundswell,” he said, “that changed Washington from the outside in.”