WASHINGTON — Some of their own GOP colleagues called them “crazy.” Others accused them of being “lemmings” who are leading the Republican Party off a cliff.
But on Tuesday, the first day of a government shutdown, members of the Tea Party wing of Congress were by turns combative, defiant, defensive, and resolute.
In other words, business as usual.
One after another, in front of the bank of television cameras lining a hallway of the Capitol basement on their way into a closed-door meeting of House Republicans, the lawmakers continued their single-minded quest to dismantle President Obama’s health care law – even though their 40-plus previous attempts have failed, led to the current impasse, and contributed to a shutdown that furloughed 800,000 federal workers.
“This is what my constituents send me here for,” Representative John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican, said in an interview. “This does underscore just how serious we are and how serious our constituents are about putting an end to Obamacare.”
Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, and many of his colleagues cast the blame for the shutdown on the Senate, accusing senators of wanting to hold onto “their own gold-crusted health care plan” rather than negotiate with House Republicans over fixing what they view as flaws in the 2010 health overhaul.
“I want it to be over now,” Huelskamp said of the shutdown. “All we’re waiting on is for the Senate to actually appoint some negotiators.”
A lighthearted mood pervaded some corners of the Capitol. Some Republican senators waiting for a press conference to start joked about whether a staffer was considered an “essential government employee,” and therefore not subject to the furloughs.
Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, who proposed an earlier amendment barring members of Congress and their staffs from receiving federal subsidies for health insurance, teased Senator Marco Rubio of Florida about the Miami Dolphins’ Monday night loss to the New Orleans Saints — a football game that took place in the hours leading up to Monday’s midnight deadline to fund the government.
Jokes aside, both Tea Party and mainstream Republicans attempted Tuesday to deflect blame for the shutdown in a bid to avoid lasting political damage to the party. Tea Party websites and blogs also sought to pin the blame for the shutdown on Democrats — attempting to turn around the usual accusations of intransigence pinned on the Tea Party.
The reason for the effort is clear: there is real risk to the GOP. National opinion polls show that the majority of Americans blame congressional Republicans for the shutdown. An ABC/Washington Post poll released Monday said 63 percent disapproved of the way Republicans were handling the budget impasse.
House Republicans on Tuesday scrambled to undo some of the harm by floating piecemeal bills to restore funding to national parks and museums, the District of Columbia, and veterans.
Representative Steve King of Iowa said Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, was the one who would not compromise, thereby pushing House Republicans to the brink.
Asked by a reporter what he now expects to realistically achieve, King responded: “If everybody has my resolve, the end of Obamacare.”
Tuesday marked the first day uninsured Americans were allowed to sign up for coverage as the health insurance marketplaces made their debut – yet another occasion Tea Party members seized upon to further deride the law, which they declared to be a disaster.
“I’ve been waiting 12 hours to sign up for Obamacare,” said Huelskamp, who said the website for the federal heath insurance marketplace crashed and he could not get on.
Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, accused Tea Party Republicans of stirring up “political psychodrama” by refusing to accept reality: that the Affordable Care Act is the law that was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court and Obama’s reelection.
Meanwhile, Tea Party groups across the country are echoing the same talking points as the congressmen, calling the impasse the “Democrat shutdown.”
Tea Party Patriots accused the media of “fearmongering” in their coverage of the shutdown, to scare Americans into “abandoning their stance of fiscal responsibility.” The Tea Party could hardly be extremist, they said, when polls show that a majority of Americans oppose the health law.
Senate Tea Party Republicans who lead the fight to hold government funding hostage to the defunding of the health law also spun the shutdown as the fault of Democrats who would not budge.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, whose 21-hour speech last week protested the funding, pushed the hashtag #HarryReidsShutdown on Twitter Tuesday.