If the federal government shuts down on Oct. 1, one thing will be clear: The Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night didn't help the Republican congressional leaders who want to stop it.
On Wednesday, Texas Senator Ted Cruz took his longstanding call to shut the government down rather than fund Planned Parenthood to a national audience of millions of Americans.
“Republican leadership in both houses has begun this discussion by preemptively surrendering to Barack Obama and saying, 'We'll give in because Obama threatens a veto,'” he said at the debate in Simi Valley, California. “We need to stop surrendering and start standing for our principles.”
The battle has put House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a predicament: Let down the conservative base or risk having their party blamed for what could be a massive inconvenience for millions of Americans. Funding for the government expires on Sept. 30 and some conservative members of the party are insisting that the Republicans who control both chambers of Congress should insist that any bill they send President Obama cut money for the women's health care provider, which has been under intense criticism after the release of undercover videos showing some Planned Parenthood staffers discussing reimbursement for fetal tissue they provide medical researchers. Planned Parenthood provides abortions, among other medical services.
After the debate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has surged to second place in the field, endorsed the Cruz approach. He told Bloomberg that Congress needs to find the “courage” to strip the $500 million the federal government annually provides Planned Parenthood. “I certainly think it should be defunded,” Carson said. “There's a reason that we have separation of powers and there's a reason that Congress has the powers that it has. They just need the courage to exercise it.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie agreed, saying Republicans must force the issue with Obama, who would veto a bill that ends funding for Planned Parenthood. “We got to talk about what we would be willing to shut down for,” Christie said. “We elected a Republican Congress to do this. And they should be doing it, and they're not. And they're giving the president a pass.”
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who made a big splash in the debate as she feuded with front-runner Donald Trump, chimed in. “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,” she said. “This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up in and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.”
The crowd roared with applause. It was clear that many Republicans are spoiling for a fight. At the earlier undercard debate, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal demanded that Republicans fight to defund Planned Parenthood, arguing that if they fail, “it is time to be done with the Republican Party.”
But not all Republican candidates were on board.
Ohio Governor John Kasich, who served in Congress and chaired the House Budget Committee, urged the party to be “very careful” about shutting down the federal government, warning that the strategy would backfire. “The president of the United States is not going to sign this,” he said, “and all we're gonna do is shut the government down, and then we're gonna open it up, and the American people are gonna shake their heads and say, 'What's the story with these Republicans?'”
Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told Bloomberg after the debate that Planned Parenthood funding is a vexing issue for the party and warned that it could backfire. He cast it as a struggle between the “governing wing” of the party and those stressing principle. “I think it's going to be a very stressful dynamic for the party. Guys like Ted Cruz—they're going to stake their claim on that issue. It'll be interesting to see how [Florida Senator] Marco Rubio, [Kentucky Senator] Rand Paul, and [South Carolina Senator] Lindsey Graham navigate those waters.”
Graham rejected the shutdown strategy. “All that does is hurt us,” he said, noting that the Republicans have tried the strategy twice and paid a political price both times. “One thing I'm not going to do going into 2016 is shut the government down and tank our ability to win.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said the debate took place on Wednesday.)