Inside the Republican Suicide Machine

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Jordan eschews the spotlight, but he has strong allies. He sits on a shadow leadership team, dubbed the Jedi Council, that Boehner would deputize as a silent partner in shaping the House's agenda. (Other members of the group are Paul Ryan, current RSC chair Scalise, and former chairs Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Tom Price of Georgia.) At the beginning of the new Congress, stinging from the loss of the tax battle, Jordan and the Jedi were eager to lead Republicans into a new confrontation with President Obama over the debt ceiling. They'd drawn a dangerous lesson from the previous battle: Brinksmanship works. But the first possible moment for such a fight would be in February, right in the middle of Obama's re-election honeymoon. So the Jedi decided to hold their fire. At a House Republican strategy retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, in January, Boehner accepted their plan, along with a list of other strategic aims, known as the "Williamsburg Accord."

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The hard-liners were firmly in control. In February, the House temporarily suspended the debt ceiling – intending to give the president's poll numbers three months to come back to earth. In March, Republicans rallied around a new, even more extreme version of the Ryan budget and forced Democrats in the Senate to produce a budget of their own for the first time in four years. The strategy was to showcase the parties' contrasting visions – a Democratic budget that raised taxes and never got to balance versus a Republican budget that slashed safety-net programs to achieve balance in 10 years.

In the spring, the House forced the sequester – $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts triggered by the first debt-ceiling deal – to go into effect. The RSC was delighted; they'd feared leadership might lose their resolve on spending reductions that hit defense contractors and other financial backers of the GOP. "A lot of us were very concerned that leadership wouldn't commit to locking in those cuts," said current chairman Scalise, a gruff congressman from Louisiana.

But no one would see quite how radical the party had become until July, when after months of keeping the specifics under wraps, the House unveiled a slate of bills comprising the most reactionary major-party legislative program in a generation. It was calculated to block every facet of President Obama's agenda, whether halting his executive orders to curb carbon pollution or stymieing spending on infrastructure and research intended to jump-start the economy. The bills also punished the GOP's most hated agencies – slashing the IRS budget by a quarter, the EPA budget by one-third, and eliminating funding for public broadcasting. Even Appropriations chair Hal Rogers, an old-guard Republican who once brought so many earmarks home to his district in Kentucky that they dubbed him the "Prince of Pork," conceded almost apologetically, "These are tough bills."

The unified Republican strategy drove toward a new debt-ceiling standoff with the president. At Williamsburg, Republicans agreed to fight for spending cuts needed to put the country on a "10-year path to balance." The promise sounded hardcore, and a few RSC members interpreted it to mean that Republicans would settle for no less than forcing Obama to implement the Ryan budget. "It's the next logical step," declared Huelskamp. In reality, the promise was strategically ambiguous – crafted to unite factions that did not actually see eye-to-eye – and designed by Boehner to give him room to make a deal that didn't require a humiliating defeat of the president. As Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita, a member of the budget committee, explained to House conservatives, there was plenty of low-hanging fruit in the budget that could be traded for a short-to-medium-term increase in the debt ceiling – including $200 billion in future Social Security cuts President Obama asked for in his own budget. "That's worth something in terms of a debt-ceiling increase," Ro­kita said, ticking off other cuts that could be cobbled together to broker a decidedly ungrand bargain, including changes to farm policy and federal flood insurance.

The strategy – very explicitly – was not to turn the debt ceiling into a do-or-die standoff over Obamacare. And at least on the surface, House Republicans were united. There was one problem. The Jedi had bought themselves too much time. Originally, they'd expected the debt-ceiling fight to arrive in May. But with the economy improving, tax revenues spiked. Then mortgage giant Fannie Mae repaid $60 billion in bailout money. Treasury was flush. And it was now becoming clear that members who were promised a knock-down fight with the administration before the summer recess – the spoils from which they could tout to their constituents back home – weren't going to get one.

The Young Turks began to grow restless.

On August 20th, nearly three weeks after Cruz first made his pitch to House conservatives, the senator took his campaign against Obamacare to the next level, joining his mentor – former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, now president of the Heritage Foundation – for the Dallas stop of DeMint's nine-city "Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour." The original Tea Party uprising of 2009 took place in stuffy community centers and church basements. But tonight's event – which packs a capacity crowd of 2,000 into the grand ballroom of a Hilton – feels less like a grassroots insurrection than a corporate convention. Jumbotron projection screens flank a large stage decorated with Texas and United States flags. On a riser at the back sits an array of camera-pleasing, demographically unrepresentative audience members – African-Americans, Latinos, young people.

Just a few years ago, the Heritage Foundation was a stodgy, deeply conservative think tank at the heart of establishment Washington, its main business offering right-wing-policy solutions, not driving government gridlock. In fact, the cornerstone of Obamacare – universal health care based on a mandate for individuals to buy insurance – was originally dreamed up by Heritage. Tonight, DeMint will denounce Obamacare as "the most destructive law ever imposed on the American people."

If Cruz is the frontman of the defund fight, DeMint is the man behind the curtain, orchestrating the battle through a tight network of outside pressure groups under his sway, including Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth. In Congress, DeMint wasn't much of a legislator – more like a Super PAC who happened to be a senator. Finding many of his Republican colleagues repulsively moderate, DeMint launched the Senate Conservatives Fund, which raised millions from the Tea Party's grassroots to elect a new guard of anti-government hard-liners, including Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Cruz in Texas, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Mike Lee in Utah and Marco Rubio in Florida. SCF also backed a crop of fringe candidates – including Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Todd Akin in Missouri – who won primaries with Tea Party support, but whose oddball views on witchcraft and rape (respectively) sank their general-election prospects, keeping Democrats in control of those seats. Surprisingly, that suited DeMint just fine: He has said he'd rather have a Senate with "30 Marco Rubios than 60 Arlen Specters."

DeMint holds the religious views of the extreme right, arguing that homosexuals and even sexually active unmarried women should be barred from jobs as teachers. But DeMint is best known as an inflexible economic conservative. Not to mention a first-class opportunist: Last December, he walked away from the Senate in the middle of his second term for a job that would give him even more power in his quest to revolutionize Republican politics.

DeMint quickly put his stamp on the organization. In the first high-profile study released under his tenure, Heritage warned that comprehensive immigration reform would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion. The math was wildly at odds with the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which calculated that reform would reduce the deficit. And it soon came to light that its top author once claimed to be able to rank the intelligence of different ethnic and racial groups – starting with Jews at the top and blacks at the bottom. "The scholarly quality of Heritage's work was never up to academic standards," says Bruce Bartlett, a former fellow at the think tank. "But there was some degree of quality control. That's gone out the window under DeMint."

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With his defund-Obamacare road show, DeMint marshaled the Tea Party to his side – and against congressional leaders. An online petition at Dontfundit.com gathered nearly 2 million signatures. Heritage Action folded new recruits into its army of 5,600 trained "Sentinels" across Republican districts who parrot DeMint's talking points. It's all part of a sophisticated strategy – modeled, surprisingly, after the Obama campaigns – to turn up the heat on Washington lawmakers. The big idea, says Mike Needham, Heritage Action's 31-year-old CEO, is to keep members of Congress "enveloped in our message" – both on the Hill, "where he's hearing it from our six lobbyists," and at home, "where he's hearing it from a well-informed Sentinel who is a Tea Party leader."

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