While much of official Washington on Saturday somberly faced the likelihood of a government shutdown, the most conservative members of the House sported a different expression.
They were smiling.
“We’re very excited,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). “It’s exactly what we wanted, and we got it.”
On Saturday, conservatives rallied House Republicans around a plan to fund the government but delay the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature health-care law, for a year. It was rejected within hours by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), making it unlikely that Congress has the time to find common ground before a midnight Monday deadline.
So, for a day at least, conservatives had forestalled the expected outcome: GOP leaders giving in on the health-care law to avoid a shutdown. Conservatives said the imminent death of the bill and the possibility of a shutdown were overshadowed by angry constituents who demanded that the law, commonly known as Obamacare, be stopped.
“It’s wonderful,” said Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.), clapping his hands to emphasize the point. “We’re 100 percent united!”
“Ulysses S. Grant said, ‘Quit worrying about what Bobby Lee’s doing and let’s focus on what we are doing,’ ” Culberson added. “We are focusing on what we need to do and not worrying about what the other guy is going to do. . . . That’s how Ulysses S. Grant won the war.”
Outside groups that lifted many of these lawmakers into office praised Saturday’s move as the kind of action that had originally drawn their support. Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, on Saturday applauded Republicans “for their courage and their refusal to be cowed by the Senate and the president.”
The most recent attempt to take down the health-care law began over the summer as House and Senate conservatives started plotting with outside groups, including the Heritage Foundation, on how to use the short-term budget bill to repeal it. Heritage Action for America, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation, held numerous rallies across the country to build support for defunding the law.
During their own public events, Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) said he and his colleagues “saw the pain and the hurt and the fear, the concern about what would happen as a result of this law. And that created a renewed resolve not only in myself but in others after we got back from the August recess.”
Emboldened by what they heard back home, rank-and-file Republicans returned to Washington this month and insisted that their leaders include language defunding Obamacare in the short-term spending bill.
“I just think you saw members who said, ‘Look, let’s just do what we all know needs to be done and frankly what the American people want to see done,’ ” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who worked closely with Graves on the plan and helped persuade House leaders to accept it.
“Sometimes I go back to basic civics: We’re the House of Representatives. We’re the body that’s supposed to be closer to the people,” Jordan added. “That’s why the Founders gave a chance for the people to throw us out every two years. That’s why when you go home for five weeks and you hear from people that this law is not ready, that has an impact.”
Saturday’s vote was the latest in a series of moments this month that have buoyed tea-party-backed lawmakers. Several of them watched in the Senate chamber Tuesday night as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), with the help of Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), mounted a 21-hour marathon discourse in opposition to the law.
Cruz, in particular, appears to be playing an influential role in steering the debate on both sides of Capitol Hill. After mounting his filibuster-style speech, Cruz plotted with Graves and others about how the House could respond to the Senate bill.
“I think it’s fair to say that there’s a lot of conversations between House members and Senate members on a regular basis, and I think that’s what our constituents would expect, is to have bicameral conversations throughout the process,” Graves said.
Several House Republicans returned to the Senate on Friday morning to watch as the upper chamber sent the spending bill back to the House with funding for Obamacare restored. As senators trickled in to cast votes, at least eight GOP congressman, including Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), David Schweikert (Ariz.), Cynthia M. Lummis (Wyo.) and Scott Garrett (N.J.), openly plotted strategy with Cruz, Lee and other Republican senators, including Jerry Moran (Kan.), Deb Fischer (Neb.), Tim Scott (S.C.) and Rob Portman (Ohio).
“Are you here to intimidate me?” Moran asked Huelskamp as he greeted him.
“No, I’m trying to help you,” Huelskamp said.
On Saturday, Huelskamp said the latest spending fight “is a culmination of doing what we said we were going to do.”
“Mark Twain once said, do the right thing and it will gratify some people and astonish the rest,” he said. “America’s been a little astonished by us doing the right thing in the last few days here in the House.”
Huelskamp said Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had talked to his GOP colleagues about the political damage Republicans suffered during similar shutdowns in the mid-1990s.
“He has an opinion,” he said. “It’s an opinion based on experience in the last century.”
Bachmann insisted that the GOP would ultimately be rewarded for standing firm. “People will be very grateful,” she said.