WASHINGTON — They have had their fleeting moments on cable TV. Their closed-door run-ins with Speaker John Boehner spill occasionally into the pages of Capitol Hill newspapers.
But outside their districts — and sometimes even within them — few have heard of the conservative cadre of House Republicans who have led the charge to shut down the government.
In contrast to 1995, when Speaker Newt Gingrich led his band of “revolutionary” Republicans into the last battle that shuttered the federal government, this time a small but powerful group of outspoken conservative hard-liners is leading its leaders — and increasingly angering a widening group of fellow Republicans.
“We’ve passed the witching hour of midnight, and the sky didn’t fall, nothing caved in,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who still believes Republicans can achieve “the end of Obamacare.” “Now the pressure will build on both sides, and the American people will weigh in.”
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King is part of a hard-core group of about two dozen or so of the most conservative House members who stand in the way of a middle path for Boehner that could keep most of his party unified while pressuring the Senate to compromise.
Their numbers may be small, but they are large enough to threaten the speaker’s job if he were to turn to Democrats to pass a spending bill that reopened the government without walloping the health law. Their strategy is to yield no ground until they are able to rein in the health-care law; if the federal government stays closed, so be it.
Confident of victory
And they believe they are winning the battle.
“It’s getting better for us,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho. “The moment where Republicans are least popular is right when the government shuts down. But when the president continues to say he’s unwilling to negotiate with the American people, when Harry Reid says he won’t even take things to conference, I don’t think the American people are going to take that too kindly.”
Backing him is a vocal echo chamber of tea-party conservatives. “Senate Democrats delivered a triple-whammy: shutting down government, bringing chaos and uncertainty to health care, which affects American lives, and sticking American families with massive cost increases due to Obamacare — which most Americans don’t want,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the Tea Party Patriots’ national coordinator.
She’s partly right. A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday showed Americans split over Obamacare. But it also had a more emphatic finding: By more than 3-to-1, Americans oppose shutting down the government as a way to block implementation of the new health-care law.
“Americans are certainly not in love with Obamacare, but they reject decisively the claim by congressional Republicans that it is so bad that it’s worth closing down the government to stop it,” said Peter Brown, the polling institute’s assistant director.
For nearly three years, Boehner has been vexed by an ungovernable conservative group made up of representatives from safe House seats. The group has defied his leadership, rallied others to its cause and worn its gadfly status proudly.
Earlier this year, the speaker disregarded them and passed three bills that attracted only a minority of his party. Instead, he relied on Democratic votes to pass a budget plan that allowed taxes to rise on the rich, give relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy and expand the Violence Against Women Act.
The nucleus of that group has stuck in the leadership’s craw for some time. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., has voted against Republican positions 136 times in his short stretch in Congress. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., has voted no on Republican motions 84 times. Rep. Thomas Massie, a freshman from Kentucky, is rising in the ranks with 91 no votes in nine months.
In March, Rep. Matt Salmon and David Schweikert, both Arizona Republicans, responded with a threat to bring down any bill that did not have overwhelming GOP support through procedural maneuvers. The speaker has refrained ever since.
But the influence of the group is sparking an internal backlash, as a growing band of moderate and institutional Republicans are demanding that Boehner stand up to the conservatives.
“You have somewhere between 180 and 200 Republican governance votes in the House, and going forward on this issue and many other issues, we’re going to have to find a coalition of Democrats to work with,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., “and recognize there is going to be a few dozen people on the Republican side who just aren’t going to be there on a lot of these major governance matters.”
Now, many Republicans believe conservative demands to damage the health-care law is letting slip away the chance to make more realistic changes to the law, like repealing the medical-device tax.
“They have never followed any leadership plan, and now all of a sudden the leadership has adopted their plans and we’re fully implementing their strategy and plan, which is I think is actually a lack of a strategy,” said Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
The conservatives remain resolute against compromises. Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said he could not accept a repeal of the medical-device tax as a concession to reopen the government.
“That could be bad because it could improve a bad bill,” he said. “And while it’s a terrible tax, removing a tax to make what is really an atrocious bill to the economy slightly better, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
To many Senate Republicans, the House’s position has now become mystifying.
“I can’t blame them for anything other than being sold a line that wouldn’t work, seeing the outside support and saying ‘maybe, maybe, maybe,’ ” Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said of House conservatives. “Well, you know that train only in a children’s story actually gets to the top of the hill.”
Information from McClatchy Washington Bureau is included.