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Obamacare Defunding Fuels Primary Talk Against Veteran Lawmakers

WASHINGTON – The often bitter rhetoric surrounding the Senate’s Obamacare debate has not only exposed fissures within the Republican caucus but sparked talk about serious Tea Party challenges for some veteran lawmakers held in conservative disfavor.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who riled the party’s right wing by refusing to embrace efforts to filibuster a House-passed spending bill that defunded the Affordable Care Act – thus affording Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, an opportunity to delete the Obamacare language – are among those who may find themselves in the political cross-hairs.

Both McConnell and Graham have drawn Tea Party challenges: Matt Bevin a Louisville businessman, is taking on McConnell while Nancy Mace, a Charleston businesswoman and the first female graduate of The Citadel, is opposing Graham. Both are looking to use the Obamacare debate to their advantage in the 2014 GOP primary.

They are not alone. Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, of Texas, who backed McConnell’s play and crossed swords with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a leader in the filibuster effort, has yet to draw any 2014 opposition. But there is some discussion that Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a Tea Party darling who remained in the Senate chamber throughout much of Cruz’s recent anti-Obamacare talk-a-thon, may jump in.

McConnell and Cornyn appear to be drawing most of the conservative bile for failing to work sufficiently hard to rally support to kill the healthcare law. The Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee “dedicated to electing strong conservatives to the United States Senate,” founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, charged that the pair’s refusal to support Cruz’s efforts amounted to the “ultimate betrayal.”

DeMint, who tussled with McConnell from the right during his tenure on Capitol Hill, left the upper chamber earlier this year to head the Heritage Foundation but the organization he left still has influence with the right wing – and money to sink into campaigns.

“Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn have surrendered to Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and the Democrats,” the group said in a missive to supporters. “More importantly, they have surrendered to Obamacare — the biggest job killer in America.”

The Fund has unveiled plans to run a 60-second commercial in Kentucky markets this week attacking McConnell, although it has yet to make an endorsement in the race. The ad states that “Republicans in Congress can stop Obamacare by refusing to fund it, but Senator Mitch McConnell refuses to lead the fight.”

Meanwhile, the Madison Project, another outfit that raises money for conservative candidates, run by former congressman Jim Ryun, has launched a web ad that features a figure with McConnell’s face attached to the cartoon body of a chicken.

“During every election cycle Senator McConnell eagerly touts his supposed ‘power’ and ‘clout’ as the Republican Senate leader,” said Drew Ryun of the Madison Project. “Ironically, he appears to be too chicken to use this power to take a definitive stance on any important issue until the debate is already resolved or the outcome is a forgone conclusion. As Senate GOP Leader, McConnell acts more like a bystander or a follower until he figures out the most politically advantageous stance to best preserve his personal power.”

McConnell announced he would not join Cruz in his effort to block the House-passed spending and Obamacare measure from coming to a final vote because it includes language to eliminate funding and could result in a governmental shutdown if not adopted by Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.

The Republican leader said he plans to oppose Reid’s effort to strip the defunding provision from the bill. But Bevin countered that McConnell is turning his back on the conservative war against Obamacare.

“Like so many other crucial fights, Mitch McConnell has caved to Harry Reid on Obamacare and is refusing to fight to defund this disastrous legislation,” Bevin said.

McConnell has some cover – he has been endorsed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Tea Party favorite who may seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Cornyn, meanwhile, has not received a similar blessing from Cruz, another potential presidential wannabe, who indicated that he intends to stay out of the fray. Tea Party advocates are especially sore at Cornyn because he initially endorsed Cruz’s stop-Obamacare campaign only to later withdraw that support.

Gohmert has said he’s not interested in waging a challenge against Cornyn, but individuals connected to groups like the Texas Tea Party Caucus and Grassroots America We the People continue to talk him up, especially in light of the recent events.

Graham is not a part of the Senate GOP leadership but he has consistently attracted disdain from the party’s conservative wing over the past few years for advocating for issues like immigration reform and for his close ties to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another lawmaker held in Tea Party contempt.

Graham, who initially said defunding Obamacare might be “a bridge too far,” has since expressed support for the House-passed bill but is unlikely to try to block final passage if the defunding provision is removed. In fact, he said during an appearance on Fox News Radio on Monday that a filibuster as proposed by Cruz would be a political and procedural mistake.

“I don’t think it would be smart of the Senate to shut down the government if we don’t get [Democrats] to bend to our will before we take the vote,” he said.

Mace goes further in trying to block Obamacare, saying in a tweet: “Filibuster, shutdown, whatever it takes to stop Obamacare!”

“Public support for this law is falling through the floor, and working people and small businesses alike are searching for relief from Obamacare,” she said. “With numerous exemptions and waivers granted by this administration it is clear, even the most ardent proponents of Obamacare understand it is deeply flawed. I believe defunding Obamacare, and ultimately repealing this bill is not only the best option, but the only option legislators have to address this policy before it imposes even more damage on our healthcare system and the greater economy.”

Others who have failed to express sufficient fealty to Tea Party principles over the healthcare debate, like Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Thad Cochran, (R-Miss.), may also attract conservative ire. Alexander is being opposed by Brenda Lenard, of Knoxville, who lost a GOP primary to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) in 2012.

The Obamacare debate might also have an early impact on that 2016 GOP presidential contest. Cruz, Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, are all possible candidates with strong Tea Party ties who vowed to filibuster the House-passed bill if given the opportunity. Paul and Rubio appeared on the Senate floor during the Cruz talk-a-thon to express admiration for his determination and pledge allegiance to the conservative cause.

But Cruz had the most to gain, speaking on the issue for several hours and prodding his fellow Republican lawmakers to take action. The effort seemed to make up for a misstep earlier in the week when he appeared to be handing over his sword and throwing the issue back to the House.