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Republican moderates hold key to ending government shutdown

As Democrats remain unified, the gap between the GOP center and right is widening. Republican moderates believe their calls for compromise will eventually be heeded.

October 01, 2013|By Michael A. Memoli and Lisa Mascaro
  • National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol is quiet on the first day of the federal government shutdown.
National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol is quiet on the first day of the… (Brendan Smialowski / AFP-Getty…)

WASHINGTON — For most of the last two decades, Republicans such as Rep. Patrick Meehan, who represents a politically competitive district near Philadelphia, have been the odd men out in a House caucus dominated by conservatives such as those aligned with the tea party.

But with Congress' deadlock resulting in the first government shutdown in more than 17 years, Meehan and like-minded colleagues may be the ones who decide how — and when — the standoff ends.

"This whole Congress has been on Cruz control for the last two or three weeks," said Meehan, referring to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a tea party favorite. "To a certain extent, you have to let some air out of the balloon."

No matter how legislative standoffs start, they almost always end the same way: One side or the other suffers defections that force its leadership to back down. In any such fight, each side tries to find fault lines in the other's support and see whether pressure can break those fissures open.

LIVE UPDATES: Day two of the shutdown

In the current battle, conservative Republicans have forced votes on issues they hoped would cause Democratic senators from Republican-majority states to break with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada).

Democrats have hoped to divide suburban moderates such as Meehan from hard-line conservatives, who have repeatedly tried to tie money for government agencies to measures aimed at delaying or dismantling President Obama's healthcare law.

On Tuesday, as the shutdown took hold and more Republicans questioned their party's strategy, the gaps on the GOP side were clearly widening. But the party's less conservative members have shown little willingness in the past to fight the right wing. Whether they will now could determine how long the shutdown lasts.

The Republican leadership adopted a new plan to at least buy time — offering three measures that would reopen specific, popular parts of the government, including parks and veterans services.

Democrats quickly circled the wagons against the idea, and the White House threatened a veto.

"This shutdown isn't about spending or deficit or budgets," the president said at the White House. "This shutdown is about rolling back our efforts to provide health insurance to folks who don't have it. This, more than anything else, seems to be what the Republican Party stands for these days."

"People shouldn't have to choose between help for our veterans and cancer research," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "And we shouldn't have to choose between visiting our national parks or enrolling kids in Head Start."

FULL COVERAGE: The U.S. government shutdown

The GOP's bills, which came up in the House under rules requiring a two-thirds majority to pass, each failed as Democrats voted lopsidedly against them.

A striking degree of Democratic unity has confounded Republican strategies so far. In the Senate, Democrats have remained outwardly unworried about a Republican tack targeting their most politically vulnerable colleagues.

At a House GOP rally after an attempt last month to stop the healthcare law, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) singled out Democratic senators who were up for reelection in 2014 in red states.

"I want to know where Sen. Pryor stands on protecting the middle class from the consequences of this horrific bill," he said, referring to Mark Pryor, the Democratic senator from Arkansas, as Republican lawmakers assembled behind Cantor cheered.

"How about Kay Hagan in North Carolina?" he demanded to more cheers. "What about Mary Landrieu of Louisiana? ... Mark Begich of Alaska?"

Those senators all have stood with their party during the current budget impasse, knowing their earlier votes to pass the healthcare law would be used against them in next year's campaigns regardless of their votes today.

"A group of folks thought that they saw the potential to change some Democrats in the Senate. I was gung-ho to try that. We tried that a couple of times," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). "I wish it had worked. That unfortunately was not the case. So now we need to take a step back and figure out how we move forward."

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By contrast, the split among Republicans appears to be widening.

On Tuesday, Meehan was one of several who publicly urged the party leadership to pass a simple, short-term spending bill — a continuing resolution, or CR, in legislative jargon — without controversial add-ons, as the Senate did.

"We fought the good fight. Time for a clean CR," said another member of the group, Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia.

Many hard-core conservatives, who have out-fought the party's more centrist members for years, are skeptical. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) can't afford to capitulate now, they say.

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