WASHINGTON Shortly after President Barack Obama started his second term, a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III gathered in the capital to plot strategy. Their push to repeal Obamas health law was going nowhere, and they desperately needed a new plan.
Out of that session, held one morning in a location the members insist on keeping secret, came a little-noticed blueprint to defunding Obamacare, signed by Meese and leaders of more than three dozen conservative groups.
It articulated a take-no-prisoners legislative strategy that had long percolated in conservative circles: that Republicans could derail the health overhaul if conservative lawmakers were willing to push fellow Republicans including their cautious leaders into cutting off funding for the entire federal government.
We felt very strongly at the start of this year that the House needed to use the power of the purse, said one coalition member, Michael Needham, who runs Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation. At least at Heritage Action, we felt very strongly from the start that this was a fight that we were going to pick.
Last week the country witnessed the fallout from that strategy: a standoff that shuttered much of the federal bureaucracy and unsettled the nation.
To many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010 waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.
With polls showing Americans deeply divided over the law, conservatives believe the public is behind them. Although the laws opponents say that shutting down the government was not their objective, the activists anticipated that a shutdown could occur and worked with members of the Tea Party caucus in Congress who were excited about drawing a red line against a law they despise.
A defunding tool kit created in early September included talking points for the question, What happens when you shut down the government and you are blamed for it?
The suggested answer was the one House Republicans give today: We are simply calling to fund the entire government except for the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare.
The current budget brinkmanship is just the latest development in a wellfinanced assault on the health law. Groups like Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks are all immersed in the fight, as is Club for Growth, a business-backed nonprofit organization. Some, like Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty, both aimed at young adults, are upstarts. Heritage Action is new, too, founded in 2010 to advance the policy prescriptions of its sister group, the Heritage Foundation.
The billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, have been deeply involved with financing the overall effort. A group linked to the Kochs, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, disbursed more than $200 million last year to nonprofit organizations involved in the fight. Included was $5 million to Generation Opportunity, which created a buzz last month with an Internet advertisement showing a menacing Uncle Sam figure popping up between a womans legs during a pelvic exam.
The groups have also sought to pressure vulnerable Republican members of Congress.
When Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., for example, said defunding the law was the dumbest idea Ive ever heard, the Senate Conservatives Fund bought a radio ad to attack him.
The groups burned faux Obamacare cards on college campuses and distributed scripts for phone calls to congressional offices, sample letters to editors and pre-written Twitter offerings and Facebook comments for followers to present as their own.
Not all of the groups have been on board with the defunding campaign. Some, like the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity, which spent $5.5 million on health care television advertisements over the past three months, are more focused on sowing public doubts about the law. But all have a common goal to cripple the measure.
We view this as a long-term effort, said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. He said his group expected to spend tens of millions of dollars on a multifront effort that includes working to prevent states from expanding Medicaid under the law. His groups goal is not to defund the law.
We want to see this law repealed, Phillips said.
A review of tax records, campaign finance reports and corporate filings shows that hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised and spent since 2012 by organizations, many of them loosely connected, leading opposition to the measure.
One of the biggest sources of conservative money is Freedom Partners, a taxexempt business league that claims more than 200 members, each of whom pays at least $100,000 in dues. The groups board is headed by a longtime executive of Koch Industries, the conglomerate run by the Koch brothers. The Kochs declined to comment.
While Freedom Partners has financed organizations that are pushing to defund the health care law like Heritage Action and Tea Party Patriots Freedom Partners has not advocated that. A spokesman for the group, James Davis, said it was more focused on educating Americans around the country on the negative impacts of Obamacare.
The largest recipient of Freedom Partners cash about $115 million was the Center to Protect Patient Rights, according to the groups latest tax filings. Run by a political consultant with ties to the Kochs and listing an Arizona post office box for its address, the center appears to be little more than a clearinghouse for donations to still more groups.
In the fight to shape public opinion, conservatives face well-organized liberal foes. Enroll America, a nonprofit group allied with the Obama White House, is waging a campaign to persuade millions of the uninsured to buy coverage. The laws supporters are also getting a huge boost from the insurance industry, which is expected to spend $1 billion on advertising to help sell the plans that it is offering on the exchanges.
It is David versus Goliath, said Phillips of Americans for Prosperity.
Meese, in an interview, said timing partly drove the effort. I think people realized that with the imminent beginning of Obamacare, that this was a critical time to make every effort to stop something, he said.
Meeses low-profile coalition, the Conservative Action Project, seeks to find common ground among leaders of an array of fiscally and socially conservative groups.
The defunding idea, Meese said, was a logical strategy. The idea drew broad support. Fiscal conservatives, like Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, signed on to the blueprint. So did social and religious conservatives, like the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition.
Last week, with the health care exchanges open for business and a number of prominent Republicans complaining that the Defund Obamacare strategy was politically damaging and pointless, Needham of Heritage Action said he felt good about what the groups had accomplished.
It really was a groundswell, he said, that changed Washington from the outside in.
Heritage Action, which has trained 6,000 people it calls sentinels around the country, sent them to open meetings and other events to confront their elected representatives.