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Republicans' shutdown assessment: 'We lost'

Conservatives reflect on budget fight fallout, look ahead to next battles

National Park Service employees remove barricades from the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial. Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh

Republicans' shutdown assessment: 'We lost'

WASHINGTON—With the 16-day government shutdown over, barricades are gone from the nation’s monuments, furloughed workers are back at their government offices, and the National Zoo’s panda cam is back online. All that remains is the Monday morning quarterbacking. And on that count, most conservative Republicans agree:

“We lost,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.

That assessment echoed from the GOP rank-and-file all the way to the top.

“We fought the good fight,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. “We just didn’t win.”

When the shutdown began, Republicans pushed to defund Obamacare. Then they hoped to get a yearlong delay for the Obamacare mandate requiring individuals to buy insurance or face a penalty. But, as the final deal emerged, House conservatives had to resign themselves to the fact that Obamacare would remain largely untouched.

Fiscal conservatives also are mourning the fact that the deal to reopen the government came with zero new spending cuts or entitlement reforms. Raising the debt ceiling will result in about $1 trillion in increased borrowing. That’s on top of a national debt that already has hit the $17 trillion mark. The defeat may extend beyond just one political party.

“It’s easy to sum up this deal,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. “The political establishment in Washington wins, and real Americans lose.”

The deal locks in special privileges for the politically connected and continues massive deficits, Huelskamp said: “This isn’t a compromise, this is business-as-usual.”

Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., pointed out how the national debt already averages out to about $54,000 per person. But Washington’s insatiable appetite to spend taxpayer dollars continues to trump those who insist the debt crisis is not make-believe.

“It’s ridiculous to pay lip service to addressing our debt every few months and then do nothing,” Hultgren said.

Underscoring the establishment victory: The deal to reopen the government and increase the nation’s borrowing authority also included an earmark that provides more than $2 billion for locks and dam projects that largely helps Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky.

Congress kicked the fiscal can down the road yet again. Huelskamp called it a “very beaten-up can.”

Conservative Republicans already have started to assess a set of tactics that brought few tangible results other than keeping intact an already agreed upon set of across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester.

Huelskamp wished the party had started making its case earlier. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said he preferred a six-week debt limit increase that would have let the fight over funding the government and Obamacare continue.

Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican freshman who spearheaded the defund Obamacare fight in the Senate, blamed some of his own colleagues for not backing the House Republican strategy of tying the government’s budget with defunding Obamacare.

“When you’ve got half the Senate Republican caucus firing cannons at the House Republicans, it sabotages the effort,” he said.

Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives inside and outside Capitol Hill say Cruz’s gambit backfired. Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, said the “everything or nothing” strategy, when it came to gutting Obamacare, was “just wrong.”

“You have to remember the earth is round,” Norquist added. “If you have 45 senators, you can’t run the Senate. There are 100 senators. That means 55 people are not on your team and there’s only one president, and he’s a Democrat. … I can’t imagine a repeal of Obamacare that doesn’t first require a different Senate and a different president than we have.”

Across the Capitol from the Senate, Boehner seems to have survived the shutdown showdown. House conservatives, who tried to replace the speaker at the start of the year, are showing no interest in backing another coup.

Rep. Jim Jordan, the Republican from Ohio who heads the influential and conservative Republican Study Committee, said there is “absolutely no talk” of ousting Boehner. Instead, Boehner seems to have strengthened his position among conservatives, who say they appreciate how he stuck with them and kept up the fight for as long as he did. Boehner got a standing ovation during a meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday afternoon

“I’ve actually been really proud of Speaker Boehner the last two and a half weeks,” Labrador said. “I don’t think he should be ashamed of anything that he has done.”

Labrador blamed Republican lawmakers who “always want to fight, but they want to fight the next fight.” Labrador added that if anybody should be “kicked out” it is those Republicans who “didn’t come here to do the hard things” but to “continue to kick the can down the road.” Labrador was referring to a number of moderate Republicans who earned plenty of television time during the shutdown by attacking fellow Republicans.

Huelskamp said those lawmakers “continue to divide the Republican Party between out-of-touch Washington insiders and the average Americans who actually live conservative principles every day.”

Conservative Republicans now are focusing on the 2014 congressional elections. After all, President Barack Obama, in his first extended remarks after the shutdown, told all “my friends in Congress … you don’t like a particular policy … go out there and win an election.” Republicans’ top priority is gaining control of the Senate. A group of conservative lawmakers at a Wednesday afternoon event dismissed the idea that the shutdown and the GOP’s current low approval numbers might hurt the party in 2014. Labrador said the shutdown “showed the American people we are willing to fight.”

Huelskamp, who said standing up for what’s right is more important than what happens in the next election, argued that while conservatives did lose this battle, “if you go outside the Beltway … we are winning the war.” Huelskamp hopes that some moderate Republicans in Congress will face primary challengers that might encourage the incumbent lawmakers to “have some more backbone.” National Tea Party groups and conservative think tanks opposed to the deal have said they may refrain from supporting Republican lawmakers who voted for it.

But before the next congressional elections Congress will have more fiscal fights. The agreement approved Wednesday night only keeps the government funded until Jan. 15, while the debt ceiling will again be reached by Feb. 7. By then, conservatives hope the public will be more frustrated with Obamacare after its clunky rollout.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., in the meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday afternoon, urged his fellow lawmakers to focus on what they agree on: Obamacare is bad, taxes are too high, spending is out of control, and Washington policies are impeding job growth.

“We must not confuse tactics with principles,” he said. “We can do more for the American people united.”

Those principles are why many congressional conservatives said they had no regrets about the fight, even if it led to few immediate gains.

Sen. Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican from Utah and a top Cruz ally, said, “It’s always worth it to do the right thing.” Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said, “It's not over. This is round one.”

Huelskamp recalled Ronald Reagan’s tough stance against the Soviet Union and how those in his own party even urged him to soften his position: “Waving the white flag of surrender is never going to work, politically and policy-wise, whether it’s in front of the Berlin wall or sitting here today in Washington, D.C.”

Added Mulvaney, “If folks think we’re done fighting about spending, debts, deficit, Obamacare, religious liberties, and equal protection, they’re wrong.”

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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