Tea party, lesson learned, plays nice this time

AP News
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Posted: Sep 10, 2014 10:05 PM
Tea party, lesson learned, plays nice this time

WASHINGTON (AP) — The tea party may have learned its lesson.

As Congress finishes work on a must-pass spending bill set for votes next week, the most conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill are eager to send a message on immigration, and stand firm against a government lending bank.

But a year after they forced a 16-day partial government shutdown over President Barack Obama's health care law, few seem to have the stomach to push their demands that far again.

"No question we learned that with the aid of the news media the Democrats were able to pin the blame on us" for last year's shutdown, said conservative Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala.

This time around, Brooks said, "We need to pass whatever funding necessary to prevent a government shutdown, first and foremost."

Rep. John Fleming, R-La., another tea party-aligned lawmaker, said: "I don't think any of us want to have a big battle" over the spending bill to fund government operations into December.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced Wednesday that votes on the measure would be put off to next week to give lawmakers time to weigh the Obama administration's request to include authorization to aid Syrian rebels fighting Islamic State terrorists.

But that delay could create space for opposition against the bill to mount.

Tea party Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who played a lead role last year in goading House Republicans into shutting down the government over what they call "Obamacare," is urging House members to hold out for a spending bill that lasts until March rather than early December. That would ensure that the next round of fiscal negotiations takes place after a new Congress is sworn in — possibly with Republicans in control of the Senate.

Some House conservatives who met with Cruz over pizza on Tuesday have embraced his strategy.

"I think it's a really bad idea to fund the government only until Dec. 11 and to create a fiscal cliff in a lame-duck session," said one of them, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.

It's not clear how significant such opposition will be, especially if the spending bill attracts Democratic support as GOP leaders intend.

Meanwhile other conservative lawmakers said they are leaning toward supporting the legislation crafted by GOP leaders, even though outside groups on the right are pushing for a "no" vote because it includes an extension of the Export-Import Bank. Many conservatives say the bank that lends to U.S. exporters amounts to corporate welfare.

At the same time, conservatives — including Cruz himself — are signaling they won't use the bill to make a stand over immigration.

Cruz and others held a press conference this week demanding that Senate Democrats allow a vote on a House-passed measure to block Obama from using executive action to set immigration policy. But they stopped short of threatening to oppose the spending bill if it doesn't include such a measure.

That represents a change from the final days before Congress' August recess, when conservatives coached by Cruz and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., forced House GOP leaders to scuttle legislation to deal with the unaccompanied minors at the border, and replace it with tougher measures.

This time, "They'll make their own decision about that over there," Sessions said. "No one wants to be in a shutdown mode."

Even those conservatives who plan to oppose the spending bill for one reason or another appear to be doing so in full confidence that it will pass anyway, with some Democratic support.

"When I looked at the bill I figured that the leadership's already worked this out with the Democrats," said Massie.

Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., also plans to vote "no" but said: "I do anticipate it will pass. ... I don't want to see a government shutdown, at all."

Last year's shutdown amounted to a political fiasco for the GOP, disgusting voters and damaging the party's brand without doing anything to rein in Obamacare. One outcome was to strengthen the hand of party leaders, according to GOP aides, while also undercutting the credibility with House Republicans of the senators and outside groups who'd pushed for the shutdown, such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth.

At the same time, the little-known Export-Import Bank does not carry the political and emotional charge of Obamacare, while the immigration issue is not an immediate concern for most lawmakers since Obama announced he was postponing taking action until after the election. And with elections coming in November where Republicans hope to retake control of the Senate and pad their majority in the House, many have little interest in a messy dispute that could make them all look bad.

"Sometimes you learn the hard way, but you learn," said John Feehery, a Republican consultant who worked for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "Republicans learned in the 1990s that government shutdowns can be painful, and they learned it again last year. It seems like every generation needs to learn it themselves, but once they learn it, they keep it learned."

Well aware of the political calculations, Democrats have been doing what they can to fan talk of a shutdown.

A press release from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's office Wednesday declared "Far-Right Groups Urge Another Republican Government Shutdown" after Heritage Action and Club for Growth announced their opposition to the spending bill.