Once again, the GOP establishment had underestimated the strength of the party's insurgent wing. Initially, old-guard Republicans seemed to believe they could derail Cruz with a few bons mots. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr excoriated Cruz's plan as "the dumbest idea I've ever heard." Karl Rove warned that when Washington can't keep the lights on, "it's an iron law that Republicans get blamed." Eric Cantor assured the National Review that the plan didn't have traction in the House: "No one," he said, "is advocating a government shutdown."
But by the time Congress reconvened on the morning of September 10th, 80 radical members – including Jordan – had signed on to an open letter demanding that the budget bill "affirmatively de-fund" Obamacare. Worse, top voices in the Tea Party had turned against House leaders with the kind of venom usually reserved for the president: "If this thing is not defunded, it's Boehnercare!" thundered Mark Levin, the right-wing radio host.
With the speaker in the cross hairs, it was Cantor who was chosen to announce the leadership's new strategy to keep the lights on in Washington: He declared that within a week the House would vote to pass a single bill with two parts – one defunding Obamacare, the other funding the government. The bill would force the Senate to vote up or down on Obamacare, before then considering the budget. Standing ramrod-straight in a banker's suit, Cantor flashed unusual vitriol: "It's time for the Senate to stand up and tell their constituents where they stand on this atrocity of a law!"
Just a few years ago, a bill of this complexity would have passed before anyone outside the Capitol even understood what was in it. "It used to be a closed system," says Matt Kibbe, CEO of FreedomWorks, whose Super PAC spent almost $20 million last election cycle backing Tea Party candidates. "You usually didn't find out until after the vote."
But no sooner had Cantor's press conference wrapped than his clever strategy began to unravel.
That same morning, thousands of bused-in Tea Party activists from as far away as Tennessee, gathered in the withering heat of the Capitol's West Lawn to demand that Congress "exempt America" from Obamacare. Some activists held signs that were shocking in the traditional manner of Tea Party hyperbole: "Defund O'Hitler Care!" Others targeted a new enemy: "Traitor Boehner Speaks Not for We the People."
One by one, the leading lights of Tea Party Washington took the stage to denounce the Cantor Plan as an empty gesture – and worse. Standing tall in a white button-down and black ostrich-skin boots, Cruz blasted the House leadership for "procedural tricks" to let Harry Reid fund Obamacare. He was joined by fellow DeMint loyalists: Rand Paul demanded that House members with a backbone stand against the "invertebrate caucus." Utah Sen. Mike Lee, whose cherubic face belies his extreme message, drew a line in the sand: "If you fund this law, you're for it!"
Back inside the Capitol, the anti-Cantor Plan forces already had their hashtag. "I do not support the #hocuspocusplan," tweeted Rep. Justin Amash. First elected in 2010, Amash recently led the charge to defund the NSA's surveillance of average Americans. He has a wide following on social media, which he uses to communicate directly with his constituents, explaining every vote he casts, in detail, on his Facebook page. Mostly, Amash votes no – including 136 times against the Republican Party line. Visiting the congressman that afternoon in his office – decorated with a framed poster of Ayn Rand – I ask him how he can so casually defy leadership. "Why be for leadership?" Amash asks. "It's more popular in your district to be against leadership. Better just to vote your constituency."
But for all his fiery rhetoric, Amash and his fellow insurgents know that keeping the grassroots on their side is as much a matter of survival as of principle. Thanks to the efforts of groups like DeMint's to give it a top-down structure, the Tea Party is no longer a ragtag army. Regimented troops can now be marshaled to the barricades within minutes. The phones in Amash's office have been ringing off the hook because the Senate Conservatives Fund has sent an e-mail blast instructing activists – including the signers of the Dontfundit.com petition – to bombard the phones of 29 of the most extreme House members to demand they oppose the Cantor Plan. The group even threatens to "recruit and fund a primary challenger" to House Rules Committee chairman Pete Sessions if he aids leadership in bringing a vote to the floor. Sessions, who has served in the House since 1997, has a lifetime score of 97 percent from the American Conservatives Union. But SCF labels him a "Texas RINO" – Republican in Name Only – adding, "We can't sit back and let wishy-washy Republicans like Pete Sessions destroy our freedoms."
That evening on the House floor, McCarthy, the majority whip, is prowling for votes. The Cantor Plan is in full meltdown mode. But McCarthy is all smiles and buddy punches to the shoulders. Behind the scenes, Jordan has turned on leadership with familiar vigor and is whipping to hold his opposition bloc together. For Jordan and his outside allies, the task at hand is not even that difficult. A determined minority in the House today can command powers of obstruction far greater than even the filibuster in the Senate. The big, strategic votes in the House are party-line affairs. Leadership needs 218 supporters to even bring a vote to the floor. To block the Cantor Plan, Jordan and his outside allies need to pick off just 17 defections, or fewer than 10 percent of RSC members.
Outside Cantor's Capitol suite, a sense of doom is setting in. The majority leader's communications chief had insisted to Rolling Stone just days earlier that "this is not a hard place to govern." Now he looks like he might literally start pulling out his hair. Cantor emerges from his office looking shellshocked. He flashes a campaign smile and is whisked away.
Less than 36 hours after it was announced, the Cantor Plan is dead. Though McCarthy's team won't share its vote count, the opposition pegs the "nay" block at 50 to 80 votes. "They weren't close," says Kentucky freshman Tom Massie with a smile. Why were so many members insistent on a do-or-die fight over Obamacare? "There's a lack of trust between the conference and the leadership on this issue," Massie says. "If our members genuinely believed that our leadership does want to defund Obamacare – and is willing to stake some political capital on that effort – then we'd entertain other ways of achieving that."
Tom Cole, a member of the House leadership from Oklahoma, is furious at the newly elected senators and outside groups that forced this fight on the House: "Most of those guys never served over here and didn't help create the Republican majority over here in the House – but they are certainly ready to lead it." He's even more angry at the stupidity of the strategy to threaten a government shutdown. "Look, I'm open to anything that would stop Obamacare. Kill it. Slow it down," Cole says. "I just don't want to put a gun to my own head and say, 'Repeal it or I'm gonna shoot!' That's what the argument is about right now."
But the following week, House leaders conceded to the demands of the defundistas. They put a continuing resolution vote on the floor that affirmatively defunded Obamacare. No tricks, no gimmicks. The GOP House members passed it with 230 votes – loading the gun.
Americans are used to rRepublican-led houses running on near-martial discipline. "A couple of years ago, the speaker and majority leader, they had all the power," says Freedomworks' Kibbe. "They don't anymore." The 50-year-old Tea Party leader does not look like your standard GOP operative. He wears hipster glasses and Diesel jeans and has pencil-thin sideburns that jut across his cheeks. The House today, he says with a wry smile, is "beautiful chaos."
The old Republican command-and-control structure ran on cash. "It was a patronage system," says a GOP aide. "Raise money for the [campaign] committee, and get put on a good [House] committee that lets you squeeze lobbyists for more money." Members with the greatest talent at raising cash could hope to be plucked from the back bench and placed on a leadership track. The current House leaders are all products of that old machine. But the system that made these men powerful has been disrupted. "They don't have the same levers that previous leaders had," says a GOP strategist who will be involved in the 2014 midterms, "to intimidate or coerce the conference to move in step."
The irony is that the Republican Party brought the state of affairs on itself.
Boehner gained the speaker's gavel by agreeing to reforms that would weaken the power of the office. In the aftermath of Tom DeLay's criminal indictment in 2005 for laundering corporate cash to Texas campaigns (his conviction was overturned this fall), Boehner campaigned for minority leader as a reformer. In 2010, Speaker Boehner put teeth to his promises, banning pork-barrel projects in appropriations bills. The reform was logically consistent for a party that had made "wasteful Washington spending" its bête noire. But the speaker himself has bemoaned the loss of leverage on must-pass legislation. "It's made my job a lot more difficult," Boehner has said. "I've got no grease."
Back in 2010, old-school Republicans, hungry to return to power, cheered on the Tea Party insurgency. But what was once seen as an electoral blessing is now understood as a governing curse. "Most of these Tea Party folks think that government is obscenely out of control and that the only way to get it back in line is to draw a hard line," says the GOP strategist. In the past, pressure from the business community could force House hard-liners to embrace ideologically unpalatable compromises like the TARP bailout. But the sway of K Street and the Chamber of Commerce is much diminished among these radicals. "In the past, Boehner could call a lobbyist and say, 'I need you to lean on this member,'" says a fellow at a right-wing think tank who asked to remain anonymous. That kind of pressure is actually counterproductive with new arrivals who got elected in their primaries by denouncing lobbyists, business PACs and the D.C. establishment.
Partisan gerrymandering of 2012 locked in the Republican electoral gains of 2010. In redrawing congressional districts following the census, the GOP focused its efforts on protecting House incumbents – making their districts as red as possible. Last November, this redistricting effort produced a shocking subversion of representative democracy. In the popular vote, almost 1.4 million more Americans cast their votes for Democratic House candidates than voted for Republicans. But Republicans maintained a commanding majority in the House. "Gerrymandering saved them," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
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