For Ted Yoho, government shutdown is ‘the tremor before the tsunami’

Why in the world would Ted Yoho ever back down?

“This one is from a 72-year-old lady: ‘Way to go, tiger,’ ” said Yoho (R-Fla.), a freshman congressman. In the middle of the government shutdown that he had helped bring on, Yoho is reading texts off his personal cellphone.

Here’s another. “It just says, ‘Shutdown,’ ” Yoho said. “With a smiley face.”

A year ago, Yoho was a large-animal veterinarian in north Florida who had never held elected office. Today, he is part of one of the most influential voting blocs in the House of Representatives, the hard-line conservatives who pushed their own leadership into a risky showdown over President Obama’s health-care law.

Right now — with national parks closed and workers furloughed and cancer studies shut down — Yoho is supposed to be learning a hard lesson, about being careful what you wish for.

See why some House Republicans might support a clean budget bill.

He is not.

Instead, Yoho has felt little pressure to change his mind, either from inside the Capitol or outside it. His leaders are still weak and uneasy. His constituents — or at least the small slice that bothers to write or call him — are mostly supportive. And his defiance has made him far more powerful than a freshman congressman has any right to expect.

So he’s already planning for a bigger act of defiance.

“You’re seeing the tremor before the tsunami here,” Yoho said. “I’m not going to raise the debt ceiling.”

Yoho, 58, is a genial man who has decorated his office with photos of his old patients: cattle. He won his office last year by defeating 23-year veteran Rep. Cliff Stearns (Fla.) in a GOP primary, and then cruising to victory in a deep-red district. His slogan was “. . . had enough?

Today, Yoho compares his role in the American political system to the role that Fred Flintstone’s feet played, in Fred Flintstone’s car.

He is the squealing brake.

“I see one side of our government, or two-thirds of it, running 100 miles an hour toward socialism,” Yoho said, meaning Obama and the Democratic-led Senate. He knows people agree with him on that, he said, because he asks people about it at town-hall meetings: “ ‘How many people feel we’re heading into socialism?’ Hands go up.”

So, Yoho said, conservatives “are like Fred and Barney in the Flintstone-mobile, trying to stop that.” This year, that meant trying to defund Obama’s health-care law, even at the risk of shutting down the government.

Then the government shut down.

Yoho’s own son Tyler was furloughed from his job in the office of Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.). And, in Yoho’s small office suite, some of the messages from constituents began to take a dark turn.

“As it’s gone on, the cursing has gotten a little bit worse,” said Omar Raschid, Yoho’s deputy chief of staff, conceded Wednesday.

“I [expletive] hate you,” a constituent from Gainesville, Fla., wrote Wednesday, under the subject line “You sucking at life.” “You have ruined everything this party used to stand for and I [expletive] hate you for that.”

The calls were sometimes just as bad.

“He hates poor people and old people. How could you work for such a man?” somebody told staffer Brittany Posobiec. The caller said the Affordable Care Act would help those groups and that the shutdown would make their lives worse. The caller said Posobiec needed to reexamine her “life’s path” since it had led her to Yoho’s office.

Posobiec responded coolly, “Thank you for giving us a call today.” But the week’s calls were negative enough that she put up a sign on her cubicle — “Brittany’s Win Column” — so she could focus on the positive things in her job (like convincing another caller that the flaws in Obamacare were worse than the caller thought).

All of this had been predicted by Democrats, and some Republicans, too: If a shutdown came, the hard-core conservatives would finally look upon their works and repent for not funding the government.

But Yoho has not changed his mind.

It was still worth it.

For one thing, Yoho still has not been punished for defying House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on the shutdown. That was not surprising, since Yoho had defied Boehner in the debate over a strike on Syria, and nothing happened then. In fact, Yoho liked Boehner even better than ever: “We moved leadership. And leadership was willing to be moved.”

For another thing, the rest of the messages from Yoho’s constituents — 800 out of the 1,200 e-mails and faxes and calls — were from people who supported him. “Please hold firm,” someone from Newberry, Fla., wrote in an e-mail. “You will find that 40% of the government can shut down for the time being, without any impact outside Washington.”

Now, Yoho is ready for a bigger fight. He doesn’t want to raise the debt ceiling — ever again. The experts, and Republican leaders, say that would trigger a financial catastrophe.

But Yoho didn’t listen to them about the shutdown. And look how that turned out.

“I think we need to have that moment where we realize [we’re] going broke,” Yoho said. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, that will sure as heck be a moment. “I think, personally, it would bring stability to the world markets,” since they would be assured that the United States had moved decisively to curb its debt.

In the middle of this defiance, the phone rings. Yoho takes it himself. “Hello, Congressman Yoho’s office.”

There’s a pause. “Do ya?” he says. Pause. “Mmm-hmm.”

It’s a constituent, Greg from Gainesville, who is telling Yoho he’s wrong on the shutdown. There are people in Yoho’s district losing aid and pay because of the government shutdown, Greg says. It’s time to pass a “clean” funding bill and reopen the government.

“I mean, we do have a lot of need all over the area,” Yoho told him, sounding sympathetic. “And we’re working on getting something resolved here, as fast as we can.”

He hung up. So what was that about? Is Yoho really working to get this shutdown resolved as fast as he can?

Yoho said nothing had changed. He would not give another inch.

“Is there any more the Republicans can do?” he said. “I guess, encourage [Democrats] to come to the table” and compromise, he said.

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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