Apocalypse on Capitol Hill: Lawmakers who love to vote no.

On Capitol Hill, they are the apocalypse caucus. Twenty lawmakers, from both parties, who calculate that the best way to fix government is to act as if you wouldn’t mind if it burned down.

In April, the House needed to pass two budgets to prevent a government shutdown. They voted no and no. In August, the House needed to pass a debt-ceiling agreement to prevent a national default. No again.

Then, this fall, the House voted three times on bills to keep the government going until Nov. 18. No. No. No.

The group now includes 12 Republicans and eight Democrats. Their votes say something about what it means to be a legislator in a Congress that governs by cliffhanger — both sides reaching agreement only when a catastrophe looms.

This unofficial caucus believes that power goes to those who seem least afraid of catastrophe.

If you think that way, compromise — the very thing Congress was built to do — seems like admitting you were bluffing.

“It’s like playing a game of chicken,” said Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), one of the 20. “How do you negotiate with somebody who doesn’t want to negotiate? The answer is: I won’t negotiate, either.”

This group doesn’t have meetings. Its members, drawn from the hard left and hard right, don’t agree with each other on much of anything. What they have in common is a shared assessment of the 112th Congress, which has been defined by deep divisions within the two parties.

Past Congresses were defined by their compromises, in which middle-of-the-road lawmakers were wooed and won. This Congress has been defined by its confrontations: both sides pushing each other to the brink of something awful, then waiting for someone to blink.

The apocalypse caucus believes you get more by not blinking. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said GOP leaders had been wrong to accept several budget bills passed by the Democratic-held Senate. They acted out of fear that the government would shut down otherwise, he said.

“So who’s governing?” Mulvaney said. His answer was obvious: Democrats in the Senate. Mulvaney said he would have accepted a short government shutdown if it demonstrated Republican resolve and improved the GOP’s bargaining position. “From a political standpoint, sooner or later, you have to stand up and be counted. I wish it was sooner.”

In the beginning, there were 70 who said no. Early on the morning of April 9, the House voted to stave off a government shutdown that was supposed to start at midnight. Despite the high stakes, 28 Republicans and 42 Democrats voted no.

Those numbers dwindled as the House took more white-knuckle votes, such as the one to raise the debt ceiling and cut the budget on Aug. 1.

Among the final 20 are 12 Republicans, including seven new freshmen. Their argument was that this moment — with deficits and debt spiraling upward — was too scary for half-measures. And everything they’d been offered was a half-measure.

“In one word, it’s urgency. Do you think the problem is that urgent?” said Rep. Timothy Huelskamp (Kan.), one of the seven freshmen. He defied the GOP leadership on those votes, believing that it had repeatedly compromised and accepted spending cuts that were too small.

Among the Democrats, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York said Republicans had acted like gangsters, demanding concessions in return for not doing something bad. He said he wouldn’t go along. “If we had more people, I think, who voted the way I did — who were not willing to pay the protection money — we would have more leverage,” Nadler said.

Then, on Tuesday, the House took its sixth cliffhanger vote of the year. It was on a short-term budget bill to keep the government open until Nov. 18.

In all, 352 legislators voted for it. That number included 23 of the Democrats who had voted no every other chance they’d had. They effectively dropped out of the apocalypse caucus. In interviews, several reasoned that this was a time when compromise was proper: GOP leaders had kept the bill free of provisions they objected to.

“I’m not for stopping government, and I’m not necessarily for bringing government to a standstill,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.). He did not want to be unreasonable: “I want to do this in a responsible way.”

So afterward, the apocalypse caucus was down to just 20. None of the Republicans had budged. But only eight Democrats were left.

“I don’t think my constituents want me just to vote a [certain] way out of fear,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). He said the bill’s spending levels cut too much out of valuable federal programs and hurt federal workers. “I voted the way that I think was the right way to vote.”

Would Ellison have done the same if his vote had actually been a tiebreaker, and caused the government to shut down? What if the catastrophe was real, not just a threat?

“I would have recalculated my decision,” Ellison said. But he still wouldn’t give up his leverage: “I mean, I’m not saying I would have come to a different decision.”

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David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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