Taking a long view on current wrangling over a government funding bill, Sen. Lamar Alexander said Wednesday he would rather work to elect more Republican lawmakers than shut down the government as part of ongoing GOP efforts to sideline implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
The senator's comments imply he is willing to offer support to a continuing resolution that includes funds marked for the health law in order to keep government services operating past an Oct. 1 deadline—a position that has been attacked by senators in his own party, most notably Sen. Ted Cruz.
In remarks on the Senate floor, Alexander described himself as being "not in the shut-down-the-government camp" but rather in the "take-over-the-government camp." The senator is seeking election to a third term in 2014.
"Every one of us voted against Obamacare repeatedly," Alexander said during 18-minute-long remarks. "Every one of us would vote to repeal it, but in my view, the right tactic is not to shut down the government. It won't work—Obamacare would just keep going, and we would have shut down the government … Shutting down the government will not stop Obamacare."
The senator was referencing elements of the health law that are included as part of U.S. mandatory spending and would be affected by a shutdown of what have been called "nonessential" government functions. Still, Alexander said cutting off certain programs through a shutdown would be harmful, offering examples such as military personnel not getting paid, Department of Defense schools shutting down, flight delays for travels, furloughed workers at sites (including Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory) and the closure of national parks across the country (including the Great Smoky Mountains).
Alexander said the better option for Republicans would be to seek to repeal the health law by encouraging citizens to back more GOP candidates.
"The best way to do it is to take over the government," he said. "Elect some senators. Elect a president. Put it in a bill. That's our constitutional system."
Regardless of his position, Alexander will likely take heat for his vote on the continuing resolution. By not falling on the side of Republicans willing to risk a government shutdown, Alexander can expect to take criticism from more conservative voters in the state who are being courted by his only declared challenger in next year's Republican Senate primary, state Rep. Joe Carr.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Carr called on Alexander to cast his vote in a way that would allow language stripping the House bill of Obamacare provisions to remain intact. The candidate said if Alexander supported allowing the bill to be brought to a final vote, virtually guaranteeing health funding to be re-included, it would constitute a vote by the senator to "fund Obamacare."
"It is plain and simple, if Sen. Alexander votes yes to cloture, then he is voting to fund Obamacare," Carr said in the news release. "Sen. Alexander should be listening to Tennesseans and stand shoulder to shoulder with House Republicans to stop this train wreck we know as Obamacare."
Carr's comment is the latest in a string of statements attempting to pin the health law, which is unpopular with Tennessee Republicans, on Alexander. The senator has hit back, releasing television and radio ads emphasizing his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and compiling an exhaustive list of co-sponsored bills, votes and statements made against it in recent years.
The Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to approve its version of the House continuing resolution this weekend, with previously stripped components pertaining to the health law placed back in the bill. From there, House lawmakers would have a matter of days to determine how to move forward with the bill before Oct. 1, with any additional changes to the bill requiring another Senate vote and enhancing the chances of a shutdown.
In recent days, Republican leaders have suggested a new approach may be taken, which could include attaching a one-year delay of elements of the health law, including the individual mandate, to an upcoming bill to raise the nation's debt limit. On Wednesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew informed lawmakers that if a debt limit was not approved by Oct. 17, the U.S. would be left with $30 billion cash-on-hand to fulfill its obligations—making it nearly impossible for payments to Medicare, Social Security and other programs to be made.
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