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Politics Within The GOP Keeps Shutdown In Motion


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

House Republicans spent the weekend trying to mitigate political damage from a partial government shutdown. They've voted for retroactive pay for federal workers kept off the job. One House Republican privately noted how awkward this is. The House proposes to pay federal workers with taxpayer money but not let them work unless Democrats negotiate concessions first.

MONTAGNE: Over the past weeks, several Republicans in Congress, including California's Devin Nunes, said the hard-liners driving the shutdown were following each other like lemmings.

REPRESENTATIVE DEVIN NUNES: Now we're letting these guys, this lemming crew, play out their hand. Now, they're kind of playing with no cards in their hand but they don't know that yet.

MONTAGNE: It's believed many Republicans would vote with Democrats to simply reopen the government without negotiations, but Boehner has blocked that vote.

INSKEEP: And whatever they may say, Republicans are overwhelmingly voting with Boehner when it counts.

NPR's Tamara Keith has been asking why.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Peter King from New York is by far the most vocal House Republican, saying the GOP position is - his word - insane.

REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING: I don't want to continue to be a facilitator for a disastrous process and plan.

KEITH: That was King hours before the government shutdown began, walking out of a private meeting of House Republicans. Behind closed doors, he says he announced he'd be voting against the latest plan to tie funding the government to a one-year delay of the healthcare law's individual mandate.

KING: Well, I got actually overwhelming silence.

KEITH: Ultimately only a handful of representatives went along with him. The moderate uprising fizzled before it even got started. Asked on Friday if he had a head count of Republicans willing to step in and vote in favor of a clean bill, King said no.

KING: I don't think there is any head counts to take real action. If it comes to the floor they'll vote for it. But we have to bring it to the floor.

KEITH: And Congressman Nunes, the one who called the hardliners lemmings, he was asked if he would do something to try and force a vote on a bill to fully re-open the government? His answer: No.

NUNES: We elect our leadership. And, you know, I refuse to be like the lemmings who, you know, if I want to run for leadership, then you run for leadership where you're supposed to. You don't go out, privately sneak around and then create spectacles on the floor.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There are limits to how far any of them will go.

KEITH: Norman Ornstein is a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and co-author of a book about Congress called "It's Even Worse Than It Looks."

ORNSTEIN: There's a kind of a zeitgeist in the party that you don't break from where the center of gravity is. The center of gravity at this point happens to be way over the edge, but people don't want to be out there as apostates.

KEITH: As Ornstein sees it, there are 30 House Republican hardliners who are driving the conference right now, another 40 who are close allies, and then as many as 150 others who are just scared to death of them and the outside groups backing them. The Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action run big dollar ad campaigns, targeting representatives they consider Republicans in Name Only. They've also launched primary challenges.

Ornstein says there are another 20 or so like King who aren't worried about those things. But...

ORNSTEIN: Even the courageous ones are not that courageous when it comes to actually casting votes that go against the norm right now.

KEITH: Why? Because they like House Speaker John Boehner and they want to support him.

ORNSTEIN: And they're fearful that if they step too far away from Boehner and he goes, the alternative is not going to be somebody who is more effective than Boehner but out of the same mold. It's going to be somebody from the wacko end.

KEITH: Ornstein is a bit of an apostate himself these days. But he's come to believe what many of the more moderate House Republicans now believe: A clean CR isn't the way out. The answer, he says, is some sort of a big deal that raises the debt ceiling, re-opens the government, makes cuts to entitlements and replaces the sequester cuts.

Michael Grimm is a Republican from New York.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHAEL GRIMM: We're running out of time. So I really do believe now there's got to be a dialogue and maybe there is this - you want to call a grand bargain. I don't care what you call it. But I think that's probably the way to wrap this up.

KEITH: If there is a grand bargain - and that is a really big if - Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole says that's when the time will come for the silent majority of Republicans who've just been going along.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: Their time will come and their test will come.

KEITH: Because their votes will be needed for any such bargain, and there's virtually no chance the hardliners and the groups who cheer them on will support one.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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