Less-conservative Republicans may be key to solving federal fiscal drama

The most conservative tea-
party-backed members of the House GOP have been the center of attention in the ongoing fiscal drama, but the key to a solution in the coming days may be a different Republican bloc altogether.

It’s a group of a few dozen lawmakers from swing districts and suburbs mostly in the Northeast and California.

They are Republicans such as Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), who represents Fresno. “I think it’s moronic to shut down the government over this. I don’t understand it. I never have,” he said Monday after House leaders unveiled their latest plan to link a bill to keep the government funded to a delay of a central plank of the federal health-care law, the requirement that individuals purchase health insurance. The new measure also would end health-insurance subsidies for lawmakers, their staffs and top political appointees — and Senate Democrats vowed to kill it.

Don’t call these Republicans moderates, a dirty word in the modern GOP. Perhaps just call them the “not-as-conservatives” — as in not as conservative as the rest of their colleagues. Ultimately, the outcome of the current crisis could rest in their hands.

The number of Republicans from such districts are dwindling. In 1995, more than a third of House Republicans hailed from congressional districts that had been won by President Bill Clinton three years earlier. Today, just 17 House Republicans come from districts won last year by President Obama, according to Cook Political Report analyst David Wasserman.

Here's what some agencies have said about their specific plans in case of a government shutdown.

But time and again in recent months, legislative battles have ended the same way — with
a group of these not-as-
conservatives aligning with Democrats to pass legislation over the objection of their party’s most conservative members.

That’s how the nation cleared the fiscal cliff in January, when 85 Republicans joined 172 Democrats to back a bill that spared most Americans a tax increase but allowed rates to rise on those making more than $450,000 a year, anathema to some conservatives.

In January, just 49 Republicans joined with 192 Democrats to pass a bill that provided billions of dollars in relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy, over objections from members of the GOP who thought that the measure should be offset with other spending cuts and that it contained pork.

Even as lawmakers remained stalemated as midnight approached, some predicted that’s how a shutdown would end this time, too.

“It’s a dead end,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said Monday afternoon, explaining why he would vote against the latest Republican plan, in hopes of getting to that outcome more quickly.

King said that he raised his objections to the new plan during a closed-door meeting with his GOP colleagues Monday afternoon and that other Republicans openly lamented that “we’re throwing red meat to the public and using our staff to get us out of the trouble we got ourselves into.”

King, who has represented a portion of Long Island for 20 years, said a group of 20 to 25 fellow not-as-conservatives huddled on the House floor Saturday, when the chamber tossed to the Senate its prior doomed plan to tie government funding to derailing Obamacare, that time by delaying the health-care law for a year. That plan was slapped down by the Senate on Monday afternoon.

He said the group agreed it was prepared to support a “clean” continuing resolution, ensuring that many government workers would remain on the job, without linking the issue to defunding the new health-care law.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) from Allentown, another leader of the not-as-conservative caucus, told CNN that he thought as many as 200 Republicans were secretly hopeful of the outcome in which some Republicans would vote with Democrats for a “clean” continuing resolution.

“I’m not saying there’d be 200 voting for it,” he said. “But certainly there are that many who want to see it happen. There are many who are hoping yes and will vote no.”

When King urged members of the bloc to defy leadership and halt a proposal by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in its track in a procedural vote Monday evening, only Dent voted with him. (Four conservatives voted the same way because the bill would not totally defund the health-care law.)

Voting with Democrats on a bill opposed by a majority of Republicans would be treacherous for any Republican, likely to draw the ire of grass-roots activists and Washington advocacy groups who have urged Republicans to use this moment to stop the health-care law.

It would also be risky for Boehner to allow it to happen. It would require him to put a bill that funds the government without strings attached to a vote. Such a move would be “devastating” to his leadership, Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), who is backed by the tea party, said last week.

That left a number of less conservative lawmakers torn as the hours dragged on. “I need to go back and think through all of the implications of what’s been offered, and then I’ll figure out where I’m going to be,” said Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), still undecided about the latest House plan just hours before it would face a floor vote. He ultimately voted yes.

But as the shutdown loomed, distress rose among the not-as-conservatives about the strategy being forced by the party’s hard-liners. “By wanting to repeal Obamacare using this method, it defies what the popular will is,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), noting that he campaigned in 2012 about the need to elect Republicans to overturn the law, only to see President Obama reelected.

“Lemmings with suicide vests,” Nunes called his fellow Republicans.

Because of the shutdown, he predicted that his party would wake up Tuesday like the foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong in the 1980s movie “Sixteen Candles.” At the end, the student wakes up after passing out drunk and crashing his host family’s car.

“That’s going to be us tomorrow,” he said, “waking up on the grass, crashed automobile.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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