House conservatives face up to their defeat


FILE - “We’re all pretty down,” said conservative Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) (John Miller/AP)

It was over. They lost.

On Wednesday, those two ugly facts began to sink in among the House’s hard-core conservatives. For nearly three years, they had effectively led the House itself — drawing their power from the intimidating sense that they were capable of anything. They often compared themselves to William Wallace, the Scottish rebel who (at least in the movies) succeeded because he refused to compromise.

But then — just like in the movies — “Braveheart” died.

On Wednesday, conservatives’ frontal attack on President Obama’s signature health-care law had ended after a government shutdown, a major decline in Republican popularity and a final compromise that gave them almost none of what they had wanted.

“We tried,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said at a gathering of glum conservatives on Wednesday morning. “We lost.”

Senate leaders announced a budget compromise Wednesday that will raise the debt ceiling and re-open the government. In Play's Chris Cillizza breaks down which political players came out of the deal on top and which ones did not. (The Washington Post)

He continued. It got worse. After the first effort to defund the health-care law, Mulvaney noted, conservatives tried to take away health-care subsidies for members of Congress and their staffs. If Obama­care would survive, then at least the “political class” would not benefit from it, he said. But then — “We lost that one as w ell.”

“We’re all pretty down today,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), sitting on the same dais. Labrador’s only hope was that the polls were wrong and that the American people had somehow been impressed by all this. “Now they know we’re willing to fight,” he said.

For House conservatives, Wednesday was a day unlike many others in the giddy period since Republicans took the House in 2010. They had lost all control of the standoff after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had failed to find a bill that all Republicans could support.

So the Senate — led by Democrats — was supposed to cut the deal instead. And did. The House was expected to pass it, with most Democrats and a few Republicans voting yes. And did.

For House conservatives, at last, there was nothing to do but wait. And then lose.

“He said, ‘Y’all need to get some rest. Go home. Sleep. We’re going to live to fight another day,’ ” said Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), relaying the message Boehner gave House Republicans in a private meeting Wednesday afternoon.

But before they could go home, there was a vote. And it wasn’t supposed to come until the evening. In the meantime, some conservatives filled the empty hours giving tours of the Capitol (since the regular tour guides had been furloughed by the shutdown).

“It actually looks like a jellyfish,” said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who was in a basement tunnel, showing a group the display of artwork from students who had won a congressional art competition. The winner from Wilson’s district sent in an abstract composition. Apparently some kind of marine life.

“You see a lot of teen angst as you walk down here,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), doing the same thing, in the same tunnel, a few feet behind Wilson.

Inside a House hearing room, several members attended a lunch meeting called “Conversations with Conservatives.” Over lunch from Chick-fil-A, they pondered what could have gone wrong.

The answer, for several members, was that other people had done them wrong. At the top of the list were Democrats and Obama. The conservatives — having taken the ultimate hardball tactic of refusing to fund the government unless “Obamacare” was defunded — were unhappy that Democrats had played so tough in response.

“He won’t negotiate,” Labrador said.

The conservatives also blamed Democrats for not acting on a series of miniature spending bills to reopen parts of the government.

Another problem: Congress’s Republican leadership. In particular, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) blamed his party’s leaders for . . . well, for acting on a series of miniature spending bills to reopen parts of the government.

“We kept talking, and in a negotiation, the person who keeps talking loses,” Massie said. “That’s what Harry Reid did so wonderfully. He refused to talk,” Massie said, referring to the Senate majority leader, who steadfastly refused to consider what Republicans were sending over.

The conservatives also, at times, seemed to blame their own faction. They lamented that one potential winning message — that the health-care law’s “individual mandate” should be delayed a year — had been obscured by other demands.

“We didn’t really articulate that well,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.). “It kind of got lost in the shuffle of the initial ‘defund’ push.”

By the “defund” effort, DeSantis meant the attempt — led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — to defund the health-care law entirely. Defunding the law was even more odious to Democrats than delaying its impact. Its chances of being accepted were zero.

So, in hindsight, DeSantis said throwing the GOP’s weight behind the defunding effort was a mistake.

He did not mention that among the legislators who made this mistake was . . . DeSantis himself. “I fully support the House’s continuing resolution that will keep our government open while stripping funding from Obamacare,” DeSantis said in a statement on Sept. 19.

On Wednesday, the legislators at “Conversations with Conservatives” said they would look to the future. They hoped that — as in “Braveheart” — this abject defeat would lead to victory. Eventually.

Maybe new Republicans would be elected to Congress next year, they said. “This would have turned out better if we had more conservatives in the House,” Labrador said.

Reporters asked: Will they try the “Braveheart” strategy again? After all, if the Senate’s plan passes, the debt ceiling will need to be raised again in a few months. And the government will need to be funded.

But even before this fight ended, there was a sense that the next one might be different.

“I’m going to commit candor here,” Massie said. “I think we have less leverage on the next CR, and on the next debt-limit [debate], than we do right now.”

The vote, at last, came about 10:20 p.m. Conservatives clustered in the back of the chamber, looking at the votes tallying up. They lost, as expected — the vote was 285 to 144. The ayes had it.

Usually, when a big vote is won, that is the moment when somebody cheers. But in this case, both sides kept quiet. The conservatives and everybody else just filed toward the exits, out toward the end.

Rosalind S. Helderman and Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.

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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