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Coburn thinks defunding Obamacare is a horrible idea

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) reveals his "Back in Black" plan to reduce the federal deficit. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

A growing number of Republican senators are urging their colleagues to use upcoming budget legislation to defund the Affordable Care Act. If the president would not sign the bill cutting off spending for his major legislative accomplishment, it would cause the federal government to shut down.

"The proponents of the push," Manu Raju and Jake Sherman of Politico write, "argue that if the government shuts down over Obamacare, it will be the president's fault–not theirs." But not everyone is on the same page: Sen. Robert Burr (R-N.C.) told reporters that the defunding Obamacare was "the dumbest idea" he had ever heard. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has a similar take. 

"This is misleading the conservative base because it's not achievable and all it will do in the long run is dispirit the base," he says. "This is a failed strategy for conservatives."

I spoke with Coburn Friday afternoon about defunding Obamacare, the law overall and what he expects the rollout to look like. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length:

Sarah Kliff: What do you think of the effort underway to defund Obamacare? 

Tom Coburn: I don't think it's achievable. A good portion of the health-care law is mandatory spending and repealing that would require two-thirds of the House and 67 votes in the Senate. I don't see that happening.

I don't see how you passing a CR [continuing resolution to fund the government] that does this. And let's say you do, and the President vetoes the CR. Then what happens? How fast do members of Congress who voted for that strategy fold when the government shuts down? I've been here when we've done that, and it's not a strategy that works. This is misleading the conservative base because it's not achievable, and all it will do in the long run is dispirit the base. This is a failed strategy for conservatives.

SK: An argument I've heard from some of your colleagues in the Senate is that, if you oppose Obamacare, then the only thing you can do is cut off the law's funding.

TC: How many people are going to close down the government over 'I want to get rid of Obamacare'? I've lead the charge against it, and I'm not going to do that. What I do want to do is able to be in a position where we can fix it later. With something like this, you're setting the base up for an expectation of something that won't happen.

They're undermining their own base. What we should be doing instead is putting other things on the table, like the individual mandate delay, repealing the medical device tax or putting prohibitions on discretionary spending for Obamacare. Then those all have to be evaluated.

SK: But don't those run into the same problem as defunding Obamacare, that they would just be vetoed by the President?

TC: You can't defend letting rich businesses off and not letting individuals off. Nobody wants the medical device tax. And most of the American public thinks you should have to have the right income to qualify for benefits, and have that verified.

SK: What do you think happens next with this defunding push?

TC: I don't know. They're really rallying all the outside groups. They're going to spend a bunch of money to just demoralize the base. The only way you get rid of Obamacare is winning the 2016 election. Their worry is that if you get a bunch of people on free health care, you may not be able to do that. But I think costs are going to be so high that those who are not going to get the benefits are actually going to revolt.

SK: What do you think of legislators who say that they're willing to shut down the federal government over Obamacare funding?

TC: If you’re actually going to do that, and hold it, that’d be fine. The problem is that I know the strength of the backbone of the Senate and House, and as soon as the heat gets hot they'll fall like wet suits.

They don’t have a microphone. Let me tell you what happens when you shut down the government: You start seeing the consequences. Who controls what is left operating? The president. As soon as the first Medicare bills go unpaid, where do you think the pressure will be? And what's the likelihood the president will collapse on the most significant legislative accomplishment of his administration?

They have no idea, I was in it. I experienced it.

SK: What happens if the House moves forward with this strategy? They probably have the votes to do this. 

TC: They'll never get the votes to carry out the strategy in the Senate. It’s dead now. They’re not going to target the votes. So the Senate will never shut down the government over this but that will create a problem. If they carry out this strategy in the House, either [House Majority Leader John] Boehner is going to have to make a deal with the Democrats to pass the CR, so he's going to have to allow a whole lot more spending in what comes over, and we are not going to do that.

SK: If I can change the topic a little bit, how do you see handling constituent questions about Obamacare this summer? What do you see your role as, if people want more information about the programs?

TC: They're going to have a federal exchange, and we haven't even seen that yet. But our constituent service is to help people comply with government regulation. We won't not help them. But we haven't seen the details yet, and until we do, we can't really comment on it.

SK: What do you expect the Obamacare rollout to be like this October?

TC: I don't know. What I do know is if you do say it;s going to be terrible, terrible, terrible as Republicans have been saying, and it's only one terrible, it's going to look good. We shouldn't overhype things. We should just watch. The fact that they're going to do everything they can to get as many people as possible to participate matters.