WASHINGTON — For most Republicans in the House of Representatives, the only greater peril than shutting down the federal government would have been fighting to keep it open.
While a shutdown could hurt the Republican Party’s ability to win the Senate next year or take the White House in 2016, that’s not the concern of party members in the House, who led the push to pair continued government funding with measures that would delay President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law.
“There’s a large cohort of members here who don’t feel themselves harmed by a bad brand name for the party,” said Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution.
Instead, the peril comes from being seen as too flexible.
Republicans won control of the House in 2010 with help from the grassroots Tea Party movement, which combines strident conservatism with a mistrust of Washington dealmaking.
The standing of the movement in public opinion polls has declined somewhat since then, according to a recent nationwide Gallup poll.
Tea Party lawmakers don’t run for office nationally, but in districts where they are more secure than ever in their jobs, thanks to careful redistricting after the 2010 census and increased polarization among voters.
The Cook Political Report, a Washington tipsheet, estimates that 205 of the chamber’s 232 Republicans can count on a safe re-election race a year from now. Only 11 Republican seats are viewed as competitive.
With little pressure to court centrist voters, Tea Party-aligned Republicans face greater pressure to show conservative activists that they are staying true to their ideological roots than working to keep the government operating effectively.
Thus it may be easier to allow the government to run out of money rather than face accusations that they did not fight hard enough against Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“They’re in a much better position when they go home and explain a ‘no’ vote that they cast as a protest vote against the White House than a ‘yes’ vote where they have to explain what they voted for,” said Kevin Madden, a former Republican House leadership aide.
Heads they lose, tails they lose
Republicans stood little chance of emerging victorious from the fight. Obamacare will begin enrolling uninsured Americans as scheduled on Tuesday, and if the government shuts down, voters are likely to blame Republicans.
A CNN poll released on Monday found that 46 percent of those surveyed would hold Republicans responsible, while 36 would blame Obama. The poll also found that two of three voters say it’s more important to keep the government open than to block Obamacare.
As House Republicans worry more about a challenge to their right flank than defeat from a Democratic challenger back home, they push their party farther from the mainstream even as their own seats remain secure.
That could complicate the party’s efforts to appeal to a greater cross-section of American voters nationally after two successive presidential defeats, veteran Republicans say.
“It’s a definite move towards helping make sure that the Republican Party is a regional party that probably controls the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future, but jeopardizes the ability to take back the Senate and the White House in 2016,” said former Representative Steve LaTourette, a moderate Republican who retired last year.
Paradoxically, the secure electoral status of Tea Party lawmakers has undercut their party’s ability to advance its agenda. House Speaker John Boehner has struggled to keep his party unified on key votes ranging from farm policy to transportation issues to tax increases.
Those Republicans who have defied Boehner most consistently tend to come from districts where Obama only won 35 percent of the vote in the 2012 election, according to an analysis by Binder. Those who have consistently backed him on high-profile votes are from districts where Obama got an average of 43 percent of the vote.
Boehner had trouble keeping his troops in line during the shutdown fight as well. Mindful of the negative fallout his party faced from the last government shutdown in 1995 and 1996, he urged his colleagues to avoid a confrontation.
But his words have carried little weight. House Republicans voted three separate times to pair continued government funding with steps that would weaken Obamacare despite a veto threat from the president.
No matter how the current battle ends, other showdowns — notably the debt ceiling — loom in coming weeks as conservative lawmakers look for additional chances to stand up to Obama.
“There’s going to be a number of crises from here all the way to Election Day,” Madden said. “This is only one part of all these battles.”