For many members of Congress, August recess is not turning out to be much of a vacation.
At town halls and other gatherings, several Republicans are hearing from angry constituents – conservatives frustrated with what they see as government intruding on their lives, raising the national debt to unsustainable levels, and choosing winners and losers among Americans.
For these Republican voters, the core of the problem remains Obamacare.
Many believe it’s better to shut down the government than fund the health insurance initiative. Few seem to care that President Obama would never sign a bill that would undermine his signature legislation and that Republicans would likely be blamed for holding the budget hostage. How GOP lawmakers deal with these hardened constituents will determine the success or failure of the Republican Party in years to come.
When Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) warned that a government shutdown would cause soldiers to go unpaid, it prompted cries of “boo” and “no” at a town hall broadcast by C-SPAN. Cole has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, which uses tax penalties to mandate health insurance coverage. He explained that bringing the government to a screeching halt over Obamacare would destroy the economy, but it was met with the same kind of that once faced Democrats who voted for Obamacare back in 2010.
“This is our last chance,” a constituent responded. “It’s more than just, you know, who’s going to win the political power play if we shut down government. It’s going to be what will the future of our country look like in a decade. Once the tentacles are there, it’s too late to dial it back.”
The time at home will influence what happens when Congress returns in September to sort out the fiscal 2014 budget and the potential breach of the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling – an event that could send the economy spiraling back into a tailspin.
What lawmakers are hearing from their constituents is a reminder that the dysfunction in Washington reflects the deep schisms that exist across the country.
After bashing Obamacare, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) acknowledged to the TV station KCRA Sacramento, “Congress right now is badly divided because the American people are divided.”
Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) told his constituents that a shutdown would backfire, since Obama and the Senate Democratic majority will never agree to scrap the Affordable Care Act.
“I’m not convinced that after a month of a government shutdown, when our seniors don’t get their Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the troops don’t get paid, that my position would be a sustainable position,” Schock said, according to the conservative website RedState. “At the end of the day this is all a public opinion battle. A better strategy is to expose the law.”
Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) told a local television station in Grand Rapids that the government shutdown won’t happen, but that doesn’t mean a bargain will instantly be reached with the White House. “At the end of the day, we’re going to have to do a continuing resolution,” said Upton. “My guess is probably extend the fiscal year another 30 days … actually at existing levels of funding so that we don’t have a shutdown.”
The strategy might insulate the GOP from broader public rage, but it could also alienate the party’s conservative base, as Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) found out at a recent event with constituents.
When Pittenger explained why the shutdown strategy would fail, a Tea Partier encouraged him to take the symbolic – but potentially destructive – action anyway to send Democrats a message. "We need to show the American people we stand for conservative values," the Tea Partier thundered, according to a home video of the event that appeared online.
Conservative radio hosts and other media are also keeping the fire lit on a government shutdown, a strategy being championed most notably GOP senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told Mark Levin, who hosts a Tea Party Radio show, “If there's one issue I think we should be able to go to the limit on, it's Obamacare. You look at the impact this is going to have on October 1st on every aspect of our economy... If that's not an issue we're willing to fight to the end on, I don't know what is.”
There are unmistakable signs that the partisanship Americans claim to find distasteful has been intensifying, as some Democrats also shift further to the left.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) faces a Democratic primary challenger next year, so he is telling constituents that he favors lifting the cap on Social Security payroll taxes and increasing benefits for seniors. That idea includes two ideas that clash with conservative Republican principles: higher taxes and more entitlement spending.
But Honda pushed the issue for his political base, telling The San Francisco Chronicle, “The federal government must fulfill its promise to its people, and that starts by asking all Americans to pay their fair share into a system that benefits everyone.”
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) has taken a turn for the surreal during the recess. He claimed that Obamacare levies a “racist” 10-percent tax on tanning salons.
“I had an Indian doctor in our office the other day, very dark skin, with two non-dark skin people, and I said this to him – and they started laughing – I said, ‘Have you ever been to a tanning booth?’ and he goes, ‘No, no need,’” Yoho said, according to a video released by the website Right Wing Watch.
“So therefore it’s a racist tax, and I thought I might need to go get to a sun tanning booth so I can come out and say I’ve been disenfranchised because I got taxed because of the color of my skin.”
When touring an agricultural products factory on Tuesday, Yoho had a chance to back down from those comments, according to the Suwanee Democrat newspaper. He doubled down instead, even though he claimed his remarks were meant in jest.
“Who uses tanning booths? People without pigment.”