In John Boehner’s district, little fretting over looming government shutdown

Washington sits once again on the brink of crisis , headed toward a possible government shutdown after House Speaker John A. Boehner sided with conservatives seeking to use a stopgap budget bill to undermine President Obama’s signature health-care overhaul.

But here, among the people the Ohio Republican represents, the clash over the looming fiscal crisis sounds like distant, if familiar, noise.

“They’ll work it out — they always do,” Robert Mahaffey, 34, said as he climbed the steps up to his storefront mortgage brokerage firm in West Chester on a recent warm fall afternoon.

In Butler County, a swath of rolling deep-green countryside rapidly giving way to office parks and big box stores, the latest round of Washington brinkmanship did not preoccupy the vast majority of residents interviewed by The Washington Post this week.

In that way, they resemble the rest of America. Only about a quarter of the public is following the fiscal standoff very closely, according to a Pew Research Center poll taken last week. That’s comparable to the public’s interest in a potential government shutdown in 2011, when about 30 percent were following the issue very closely about a week before the deadline.

Countdown to the (possible) shutdown

“I didn’t know we were having a government shutdown,” said Walter Herd, 46, as he browsed a used-car lot across the street from Boehner’s district office on a busy stretch of the Cincinnati-Dayton Road. Herd, a construction worker under contract at the VA in Cincinnati, pondered the implications: “That might mean my job.”

Dennis Bradbury, a 56-year-old truck driver, admitted that he has not followed the drama in Washington “as well as I should have.”

But Bradbury, sitting on the porch of his West Chester home, where he was holding a yard sale, said he had faith the crisis would be averted. “I don’t think that John Boehner would let the federal government come to a complete halt,” he said.

Tom Temple, owner of The Jug, an 81-year-old burger drive-in in nearby Middletown, is worried about the impact of Obamacare on local businesses, but he was not sure how it is tied to the current fiscal fight. “I heard something about that on the radio, but I don’t really know what’s going on,” Temple said as he took a break from flipping burgers.

Joseph Hinson, president of the West Chester-Liberty Chamber Alliance, said there is little consternation among the group’s more than 700 members about the Sept. 30 budget deadline.

“When you hear about the government shutdown, it’s like, ‘Here we go again,’ ” said Hinson, seated in his office next to a map highlighting the areas of commercial growth along Interstate 75, which runs north from Cincinnati to Dayton. “What we’re hearing more of is the uncertainty of what’s going to happen with health-care reform.”

At the Middletown Area Republican Club’s monthly meeting Monday, the two dozen members in attendance voted to donate $250 to a boys’ soccer team, got reports from the local auditor and county clerk on new cost savings, and listened to a talk by the guest speaker, a local prosecutor. No one brought up the shutdown threat.

“No one talks about it, because it’s like the boy who cried wolf,” said Carla Baker, who serves on the executive committee of the Butler County Republican Party.

Baker is not happy about Obamacare, but she calls the current situation in Congress “a train wreck.”

“I just think it’s ridiculous they’re using the shutdown of the government and government employees as leverage,” she said.

Baker doesn’t blame Boehner, however. “I think he wants to do what’s right,” she said. “But he can’t make people vote the way he wants them to vote.”

Mike Scorti, past president of the Middletown club, praised Boehner for “standing up” and said there was little risk it would lead to a freeze in federal funding. “It would be foolish to shut the government,” he said. “It’d be stupid.”

In this deeply red district, wedged in the southwest corner of the state, Boehner is viewed by many as trapped by his circumstances, a victim of Washington’s deeply polarized political culture. The 12-term congressman — who got his start in public office in his early 30s as trustee of West Chester Township, then called Union — is given the benefit of the doubt by longtime constituents and friends, who doubt that a funding freeze will come to pass.

“I have a lot of confidence that John makes decisions that he thinks are the right ones to make at the time,” said Gary Cates, a former state senator who has known Boehner for 30 years. “I can’t imagine a tougher job than trying to corral 434 other people in one body. I think it’s got to be a thankless job.”

Cates, a senior vice chancellor for the Ohio Board of Regents, is not too worried that the federal government is actually going to come to a halt.

“We’ve been down this path before, where we go right up to the edge,” he said as he left the meeting of the Middletown Area Republican Club. “And I anticipate with the way things are in D.C., we’ll have some more high drama, but it will get worked out.”

And if it doesn’t — well, that’s just fine by many in Boehner’s district, one of the most staunchly conservative in the state, a largely rural area anchored by swelling suburbs north of Cincinnati. In November, nearly 62 percent of the 8th Congressional District vote went for Republican Mitt Romney and 99.22 percent went for Boehner, who ran unopposed in the general election.

Boehner is a familiar face in Butler County, the most populous area of the district, where he has a home in an upscale development of stately homes set around a pristine golf course. Political conservatives are a dominant force here: Nearly three-quarters of voters in the county supported a 2011 state measure that attempted to block the individual mandate requirement of the Affordable Care Act.

“There is a very strong contingent of tea party conservatives in his district who have been the most vocal about him giving no ground and letting the government shut down if it means defunding Obamacare,” said Chris Kelley, a lecturer in political science at Miami University who lives down the street from Boehner in West Chester. “My guess is he’s not getting many calls from constituents telling him to negotiate this quickly with Obama.”

David Kern, executive chairman of the Butler County Republican Party and a supporter of the tea party movement, said his sense is “that people are glad that we’re standing up to the liberals and the danger and the harm of Obamacare.”

While political pundits may deride Boehner as a weak speaker, Kern said his approach wins him points back at home: “He listens to his caucus and respects the members’ thoughts. And he’s not a bully, as some leaders have been.”

If anything, folks such as Ann Becker, president of the West Chester and Cincinnati Tea Party, want Boehner to go further to the right.

“I wish he was in front, leading this issue, instead of a junior senator from Texas,” said Becker, referring to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, who has been driving the effort to defund Obamacare. “I’ve heard from several people that Boehner isn’t really interested in shutting down the government, and I wish he could reconsider taking that full step. Because Obamacare is the defining issue of his speakership.”

But Ann Munafo, executive director of the Middletown Area Senior Center, fears where the current showdown is headed. Her center relies on grants through the Older Americans Act to provide lunch every day at a reduced rate for dozens of seniors, as well to transport hundreds of elderly people to doctor visits every month — programs that could be hurt if federal funding is cut off.

“There has to be some kind of compromise,” she said, seated behind the reception desk at the colorfully decorated center. “It’s not fair to put all these federal programs in jeopardy. Because what’s going to happen to people? We’re not going to feed our seniors? We’re not going to take them to dialysis?

“I’m Republican, but we need to be able to compromise,” Munafo said. “It’s like, okay, we’re adults. We need to act like adults. What are these games we’re playing? These are people’s lives.”

Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.

Matea Gold is a national political reporter for The Washington Post, covering money and influence.

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