FAIRWAY, KS — “I was not sent to Washington to shut down the federal government,” Sen. Mike Johanns told the Lincoln Journal-Star over the weekend.
The Nebraska Republican was lashing out at the GOP-led House, which had voted on Friday to tie the continued funding of the entire federal government to the defunding of the Affordable Care Act—a move that could set the stage for a government shutdown next week. Johanns added that he “did not sign onto the Cruz letter.”
Readers could be forgiven for not understanding this reference, as it had received little to no local coverage before then. In part, Johanns was taking a shot at the Cornhusker State’s other GOP senator, Deb Fischer, who did sign “the Cruz letter,” as the Journal-Star went on to point out. (Update: Nick Simpson, a spokesman for Johanns, emails to dispute this characterization of the senator’s remarks. Johanns was “disagreeing on strategy,” but “not ‘lashing out’ our ‘taking a shot’ at anyone,” Simpson writes. See note at bottom for more.)
The “Cruz letter” actually was not the work of conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, but of his fellow Tea Party Republican Mike Lee of Utah. Back in July, Lee obtained signatures from Fischer and 13 other conservative senators on a missive to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pledging not to vote for any continuing resolution that funds Obamacare. In August, House Republicans followed suit, with 80 members signing a letter circulated by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-NC, urging GOP leadership to use the appropriations process to defund the health care law.
Though it was signed by only a minority of the caucus, the House letter in particular signaled to Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor that they would have trouble getting the votes for a continuing resolution funding the government if it allowed Obamacare to be implemented on schedule at the beginning of October. The entire caucus is opposed to the health care law, but a vote to defund (like the bill that passed Friday, based on legislation drafted by Cruz and Rep. Tom Graves) is one thing; a pledge never to vote for a funding bill that provides money for Obamacare is another matter entirely.
“Support for the Cruz/Graves bills is absolutely meaningless without also signing the Lee/Meadows letter,” Joshua Withrow of FreedomWorks insisted last month, admonishing Republicans to sign. “Harry Reid and his Democrats will have no incentive to compromise unless they know the Republicans are willing to take a hard stance—even allowing the government to be shut down, if necessary—in order to stop the catastrophically unworkable and unaffordable health care law from taking effect this January.”
Backed by FreedomWorks and other conservative advocacy groups such as Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund, this vocal minority of Republicans has held firm on this “hard stance,” and they have forced Boehner and Cantor to go along—even while Johanns and several other Republicans have objected to the strategy.
Several of the more influential and outspoken signees to these petitions come from here in the Midwest—including Fischer of Nebraska; Rep. Tim Huelskamp and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas; Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Steve King of Iowa; and Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri. But you won’t find much in the local media about their involvement, with a few exceptions.
The Des Moines Register did compile a substantive piece on the GOP letters late last month, using AP copy but making special note of King and Grassley, eliciting comment from Grassley’s office, and posting the August letter itself at the bottom. In Missouri, the Rolla Daily News also localized an AP story on the letters, highlighting the fact that Rep. Jason Smith was one of the signees, and obtaining a quote from Smith explaining his reasoning.
Otherwise, there has been little coverage in the region. In Kansas, the involvement of the state’s delegation, particularly Huelskamp’s outspoken advocacy in pushing the GOP caucus into a shutdown stare-down, has gone largely unreported, other than a few truncated blog posts from the Wichita Eagle.
This is not to suggest that local journalists should feel obligated to throw bricks at Huelskamp and other signees as liberal bloggers (and Republicans like Johanns) have done—only that they make sure their readers are aware of what their members of Congress have been doing and what the consequences may be.