WASHINGTON — Under attack for the government shutdown, some of the most vocal elements of the conservative wing of the Republican Party are publicly splintering, a sign of growing concerns among even hard-core conservatives that the defeat-health-care-at-any-cost strategy may have backfired.
The dispute centers on the best way to oppose President Barack Obama’s health care plan: to immediately try to bring it down by blocking any federal budget deal that includes funding for it, or to gradually build public opposition until Congress and the White House are controlled by elected officials willing to repeal the law.
On Thursday, the divisions were on display as conservative groups such as the Heritage Action Fund for America said it would not fight a short-term increase in the debt ceiling while Americans for Prosperity insisted just a few days ago that any increase be tied to cuts in entitlement programs.
Their actions followed an unusual public statement Wednesday by the Koch Cos., the conglomerate controlled by the billionaire conservative brothers Charles and David Koch, who sent a letter to the Senate stating that they did not support the effort spearheaded by Heritage Action to force the partial closure of federal government as a way to eliminate funding for the health care program.
“We want to set the record straight and correct this misinformation,” the letter said.
The conflicting opinions, which had been kept mostly private for months as the budget conflict in Washington escalated, reflect a growing fear that the Republicans will be blamed for fallout from the government shutdown without anything to show for it.
“We were fighting a battle where we already lost, on the same battlefield where we already lost it,” said Hogan Gidley, a former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party and an adviser to Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign.
Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, which has led the effort to defund the health care program even if it meant a government shutdown, said the divisions among conservative activists were not a surprise.
“Anytime you choose to engage in policy fights in Washington, chances are your supporters are not going to be in 100 percent alignment all the time,” he said. “That is how Washington works.”
Democrats have seized on the disputes, noting that Freedom Partners, a trade association backed by the Koch brothers and others, donated $500,000 to Heritage Action before the 2012 presidential election.
“By shutting down the government, Republicans are satisfying the Koch brothers while millions of people are suffering,” Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. and the Senate majority leader, said in a tweet before the Kochs distanced themselves from the Heritage Action effort.
Holler said that one issue dividing conservatives was the timing of attacks on the health care plan. The supporters of Heritage Action’s strategy believed that the critical moment to mobilize was the convergence of the new budget year that began Oct. 1 — meaning that the government would run out of money if a new budget was not passed — and the opening day of the online markets, known as exchanges, that enabled people to buy health insurance under the new law.
“If there is a better strategy than defunding, we are all ears,” Holler said, recalling a conversation among conservative activists this year as they debated the best path forward. “If it is more workable, sign us up. But nobody was able to present one that would work before October 1st.”
Opponents of the approach are arguing that conservatives would have been better served by trying to force an overall reduction in federal spending and tying that effort to the debt ceiling fight, a step the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity urged this week. Specifically, the group argues that stopping the health care plan should be a years-long effort to marshal what it says will be growing public animosity toward the law. That will help elect Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, which will repeal it.
Stanley S. Hubbard, a Minnesota-based television executive and a donor to groups supported by the Kochs, said he preferred that approach. “Whether you like it or not, it’s the law,” he said. “And if you don’t like it, elect people who can repeal it.”
The startup of the program offered a perfect opportunity to advance that longer-term approach, supporters of it said, since without the politically manufactured budget crisis, there would have been more media attention on the program’s troubled beginning, including failures of the online enrollment system.
“We believe tying the fight over Obamacare to the continuing resolution takes our focus off the many flaws of Obamacare, as well as cutting out-of-control government spending,” said James Davis, a spokesman for Freedom Partners.
Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former policy adviser to Mitt Romney, said he worried that by hurting the Republican brand nationally, the House Republican strategy would set back the cause of repealing Obamacare.
“To the extent that we are compromising our ability to win close races, that is a big problem for those of us who think that the best way to get through this is through a legislative mechanism,” he said.
Others expressed irritation that the House Republicans had been so outmaneuvered on the shutdown that they were now offering a short-term increase in the debt ceiling without any offsetting budget cuts — a worse deal, however temporary, than they were demanding in the early stages of the budget battle.
Similar divisions emerged among Republicans in Congress several weeks ago. Even Karl Rove, a Republican operative and former adviser to President George W. Bush, questioned the defunding strategy in a column for The Wall Street Journal last month.
“Any strategy to repeal, delay or replace the law must have a credible chance of succeeding or affecting broad public opinion positively,” he wrote. “The defunding strategy doesn’t.”
What was clear in Washington on Thursday was that the focus had shifted away from the defunding of the health care program. Republicans on Capitol Hill were describing the fight as an effort to cut future budget deficits — a major shift in strategy and an acknowledgment that they were expecting the defunding push to fail.
Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, which has supported many Tea Party candidates, said Thursday that the conservatives were still unified on their ultimate goal: killing what they call Obamacare.
“Different people have different views on how to get there,” he said. “Moving in that direction and having the debate are worth the effort.”
Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who led a defunding effort in the Senate last month, said she agreed Thursday.
“We believe we have made important headway in our argument to undo Obamacare,” she said. “Any potential backlash is not on our radar right now.”