Emboldened Republicans defy Washington’s norms
WASHINGTON — One is a former Texas talk-radio host who had never held public office until he won a seat in Congress in the 2010 tea party wave.
Another is an MIT-educated inventor who has all but shelved his scientific pursuits to reinvent government.
Others are back-bench, right-wing lawmakers who have served in Congress for years but suddenly find their once far-afield views have more currency within their party.
These are the House Republicans who have convinced Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to use the federal shutdown and a possible debt default as leverage to reduce the reach of government.
They are not just tea party members but a combination of newcomers and veterans who, by sheer force of their personalities, and emboldened by safe conservative districts, have chosen to defy Washington’s traditional norms of conversation and compromise.
They could be called the Chick-fil-A Caucus, after the monthly hearings convened by some conservative leaders, shadow government-style, in ornate committee chambers where they proudly serve sandwiches from the company made politically famous by the owner’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
Their fierce commitment and the intense support of their outspoken constituents to slash spending and halt President Obama’s healthcare law almost guarantee there will be no speedy resolution to the standoff that has forced parts of the federal government to close.
Now in its second week, the shutdown that started as an attempt to end Obamacare has shifted into a Republican-led battle to cut spending. The legislative context has shifted too, with the focus now on a vote that will be needed by Oct. 17 to raise the nation’s debt limit. Failure to lift it, economists warn, could risk catastrophic default.
“Most of the messages I’m getting from Texas are: ‘Hang on, you’re doing the right thing,’” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), the attorney-turned-radio-host who pushed out a 14-term Democrat.
“We are not a bunch of hardheaded fools,” added Farenthold, a friendly, robust man with a bushy mop of dark hair. His goal is not to “kick and scream,” he said, but to “get the economy fixed.”
The Corpus Christi-area congressman acknowledged that some of the callers to his office, especially those from outside his state, were not so supportive.
“We’ve had the F-word dropped,” he said.
The hard line from the Republican flank can be traced, in part, to new members who have little regard for the top-down leadership that has characterized the House in the past.
About half of the 232 House Republicans were elected in the last two elections, many with little or no legislative experience. Before winning seats, these Republicans who became congressmen included farmers, a car dealer, a funeral home director and a champion lumberjack.
New district boundaries and the increased tendency of Americans to cluster in like-minded communities have created what some political scientists say is the most polarized Congress since the late 19th century. Republicans are far more Republican; Democrats are more Democratic.
To explain why he was leading efforts to block a government-funding bill that did not take action against Obamacare, Thomas Massie, the boyish-looking inventor and freshman lawmaker from Kentucky, had a simple answer: His constituents want him to.
“For 10 weeks, I’ve been saying to everybody that calls my office, and I have thousands of calls, I will not vote for a CR that funds Obamacare,” Massie said, using legislative jargon for a “continuing resolution,” as the money bills are known.
With promises like those, lawmakers have little room to stray politically.
On Monday, both sides in the stalemate held firm.
House Republicans, with some help from Democrats, approved the latest in a series of bills to reopen parts of government, this time the Food and Drug Administration. The Democratic-controlled Senate has no immediate plans to take up any of those bills; its leaders insist that the government should be reopened in whole.
White House aides indicated that Obama was willing to negotiate on spending, and even on some aspects of the Affordable Care Act, but only once the threat of a debt default is lifted.
Obama visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he disputed Boehner’s assessment that a no-strings-attached bill to fund the government would fail in the House.
“Just vote,” Obama said. “Let every member of Congress vote their conscience, and they can determine whether or not they want to shut the government down.”
The opposition from Republican lawmakers like Farenthold and Massie explains why Boehner has so far refused to allow any such measure to come to a vote. A move to allow that would cause a revolt among conservatives that could further splinter the GOP majority.
Boehner took the speaker’s gavel with a promise to end the autocratic leadership of those who came before him and to return the House to the regular order of legislating from the ground up.
But even the affable Ohioan has grown weary of the rebellious members on his right flank who have torpedoed deal after deal he has tried to cut with the White House.
Late last year, Boehner sanctioned a purge, removing a handful of the most rambunctious lawmakers from committee assignments. But the attempt at discipline backfired, emboldening those who were shunned to take aim openly at the speaker’s leadership team.
Amid this backdrop, the Chick-fil-A-fueled meetings gained new momentum. The monthly sessions began in March 2012 to give rank-and-file conservatives, particularly those in the new class from 2010, a regular platform for sharing their views, much as the party leadership does during its weekly news conferences.
“Conversations With Conservatives,” as they are called, are meant to “give conservatives a stronger voice in the policy debates that are playing out in the House,” said Robert Bluey, a director at the Heritage Foundation, whose organization supports the sessions, which he moderates.
In gilded House hearing rooms, new meets old: Alongside Reps. Raul R. Labrador (R-Idaho) and Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) are right-flank stalwarts, such as Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove).
The sessions have grown, both in participation from lawmakers and interest from the public — they are open to the media and streamed online — as the power of the conservative bloc becomes clearer.
“I think what the American people want to know is what we stand for. They want to see a clear vision,” said Labrador, noting that conservatives have tired of warnings from GOP leaders that a government shutdown could hurt the party’s electoral chances. “They want to know that we actually want to fight for something and that we have an articulable position on the issues of the day.”
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), a doctor, an owner of sub shops and an elected coroner before joining Congress, said he heard only positive comments during a tele-town hall last week as the shutdown began.
“Our constituents are saying, ‘Hey, you guys hang in there,’” said Fleming, who won his seat in 2008. “I couldn’t keep them on topic because for them, they go, ‘Shutdown? That stuff is happening in Washington. That doesn’t affect our everyday life.’ They’re going, ‘Keep fighting against Obamacare.’”
Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.
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