FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) – One of the chief backers of a plan to defund the federal health care law by tying it to budget negotiations said Monday that he didn't believe Republicans would be blamed for a government shutdown as supporters of the approach launched a national tour to spur support for the idea.
Dismissing concerns from some Republicans, former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina called the defunding idea the "last, best chance" to stop the federal health care overhaul before key parts of the law take effect later this year. DeMint, who now heads the Heritage Foundation, noted that Republicans were elected in 2010 on the vow to kill the law.
"They've done symbolic votes to repeal Obamacare, but the real act of courage is if they get back in September and they pass a bill funding all operations of government except Obamacare," DeMint told a crowd of more than 300 people at a town hall organized by Heritage.
The town hall kicked off a nine-state tour by the conservative group and a series of counterevents by the 2010 law's supporters all focusing on the federal law and efforts to tie the debate to budget negotiations. Some conservatives have threatened to close the government temporarily this fall – by refusing to fund federal operations beyond Sept. 30 – if that's the only way to cut off money for President Barack Obama's signature health care law. Other Republicans have dismissed the tactic as counterproductive and even dangerous for Republicans seeking re-election next year.
DeMint said the concern that the effort would hurt the party comes from "the same guys who handled the 2012 election for Republicans." Those within the party who have expressed worries about threatening a shutdown over health care include former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
"Certainly they will be blamed if they don't get on the offense and tell Americans what they're doing," DeMint told reporters before the town hall. "If they pass a bill when they get back in September, and they should have done it before they left, and they fund government and they go out and say 'we funded the government, Mr. President, it's your decision whether to accept that funding or shut the government down,' I think it's an argument we can win."
Supporters of the law are trying to counter the events with rallies in each of the cities where Heritage is holding a town hall. About 150 people gathered at a park in Fayetteville waving signs urging Washington lawmakers to not repeal the health law.
"We decided this summer that we were not going to let the crowd that wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, that wants to defund the Affordable Care Act, we weren't going to let them get the only word in. One of the problems with the Affordable Care Act, the knowledge that people have about it, is in 2009 the other side got the whole say," said Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, which is organizing the rallies supporting the law. "We're not going to let that happen this summer."
In Arkansas, Republicans have made major gains by tying Democrats to Obama and his signature health care law. The GOP unseated two-term Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010 by criticizing her vote for the overhaul, and the party won control of the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction in the November election.
Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor next year, has been targeting the two-term senator for his support of the law in 2010. Pryor has defended the law, which he argued may need some fixes but shouldn't be repealed.
Republicans in the state have also been sharply divided over the law. The GOP-led Legislature earlier this year approved a plan to use Medicaid money to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income residents as an alternative to expanding Medicaid's enrollment under the federal health care law.
The plan split Republicans in the Legislature, with opponents criticizing it as embracing the same law they have opposed for the past three years. Supporters have portrayed it as a conservative alternative that allows them to cut costs in Medicaid. DeMint criticized the private option, saying it "still puts Arkansas in the grasp of the federal government."
Supporters of the health overhaul complained that Republicans who have pushed for its repeal haven't offered an alternative. One Fayetteville doctor said the 2010 law wasn't perfect, but addresses inequalities he sees with the current health care system.
"I have patients who make a conscious decision to not seek the care they need because they want to leave something for their family. They can't sell the farm to buy themselves a chance at a longer life," Dr. Hershey Garner said. "That is an immoral system."
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