If Republican Tom Massie’s push to dismantle President Barack Obama’s health-care law shuts down the government and costs him his U.S. House seat, he’d happily return to his solar-powered home back in Kentucky with his kids.
That’s making life difficult for Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
The red-haired Massie, who has two engineering degrees and 24 patents, represents a new breed of Republican in Washington: recently elected to the House, not bound by fealty to leaders and unmoved by the usual tools of enforcing party discipline.
This group, not large enough to be a majority though big enough to prevent one, is shaping the course of Congress in ways not seen since Republicans won the House in 1994.
Now they’re using their influence to raise the specter of the first federal government shutdown since that era. Massie is prepared for whatever happens, saying life was much better before he got elected to Congress in 2012.
“The last thing I fear is going back and leading that same life,” Massie said in an interview.
House lawmakers return to Washington tomorrow and have just five scheduled working days to pass legislation to keep the government funded past Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.
That job became more difficult last week when Massie and other first- and second-term lawmakers banded together to reject a spending proposal from Boehner’s leadership team, heightening the risk that the government may shut down though it may cause a political backlash from other Republicans. House leaders rescheduled a budget vote for this week, although they haven’t specified which day.
“Those who are newly elected to Congress might not realize the long-term implication this could have for the Republican Party,” said Joe Gaylord, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s political adviser during the shutdowns in 1995 and 1996. “The overwhelming sentiment of the electorate is opposed to complete obstructionists. That’s the way they’ll be seen.”
None of these new Republicans were there for those shutdowns, and they tend to play down the political risks. Massie and others say they can shift the blame to the Democratic-controlled Senate if Republicans craft a reasonable plan with enough money to keep the lights on after Sept. 30.
“We were elected to repeal and replace Obamacare,” said Representative Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican elected in 2010. “We’ve got to offer an alternative for the sake of our credibility.”
The clout of these congressional newcomers comes in part from their sheer numbers -- close to half, or 103, of the 233 Republicans in the House have served three years or less, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.
A total of 41 House Republicans, about 18 percent of the caucus, have repeatedly voted against their leadership this year, according to the data compiled by Bloomberg. Many are aligned with the anti-tax Tea Party.
They’re newcomers not just to Congress, but to public life. Of the 31 House Republican freshmen, 17 had never before served in any public office, according to the House Republican Conference office. About half of the roughly 80 Republican freshmen in 2010 were in their first elected office, Representative Greg Walden, chairman of the House Republican transition team that year, told Fox News at the time.
There’s no clear leader in the group, which instead forms small coalitions from issue to issue. In addition to Massie, who was counting votes against the Republican leadership plan last week, influential voices include Tom Graves of Georgia, who introduced an alternative spending plan last week, and North Carolina freshman Mark Meadows.
They work closely with longer-tenured House members Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 160 lawmakers that promotes small government, and Jim Jordan of Ohio, who carries a 100 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union.
Among 233 House Republicans, Boehner can’t lose more than 16 votes to pass a spending measure, or he’ll need help from Democrats who oppose defunding the health-care law. If he can’t command enough Republican votes, he could face a tough speakership re-election in early 2015.
Without support from this band of rogue Republicans, a House vote on a transportation funding bill was called off. Their opposition doomed a farm bill and forced Republican leaders to rewrite it.
They also made their voices heard in opposition to Obama’s call for congressional authorization for the use of military force against Syria. All but 12 of the 103 recent arrivals serving three years or fewer said publicly that they would vote no on Syria, compared with 24 of the 130 members serving longer, according to the data compiled by Bloomberg.
“What’s great about our leadership is they welcome other ideas,” Graves, who was elected in 2010, said in an interview.
Often the leadership doesn’t have a choice. These members exist largely outside the reach of Boehner of Ohio and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
Previous House speakers wielded influence by stripping rogue members of committee assignments or rewarding good behavior with hometown spending projects known as earmarks. Those actions aren’t as meaningful for Boehner. The anti-tax Tea Party members want less spending and show little interest in leadership. Targeted spending projects, or earmarks, are banned.
With support from groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America, these Republicans don’t need to rely on the fundraising power that House leaders can offer.
The two groups last week endorsed Graves’s spending plan.
“Conservatives grind the House to a halt over Obamacare,” was the subject line of a Sept. 12 press release crediting ForAmerica, a Reston, Virginia-based group that advocates for smaller government, with “playing a key role” in the fight.
The group, led by Republican activist Brent Bozell, specializes in using social media to engage voters. It helped coordinate an “Exempt America from Obamacare” rally outside the U.S. Capitol last week and claimed responsibility for more than 40,000 phone calls in three weeks to the offices of Boehner, Cantor and other Republicans who it said “refused to get behind the effort to defund Obamacare.”
“All the Republicans have to do is pass a bill funding everything but Obamacare and then go home,” Bozell said in an interview. “The politics are very clear. Republicans promised this, they should deliver.”
For many Republicans, their biggest concern isn’t a challenge from a Democrat, because most House seats are drawn to favor the party in power. Their worry is a primary rival from the right, so standing up to party leaders is a way to win favor with deep-pocketed, conservative-leaning groups.
Republicans head into this week with no specific plan to avert a shutdown. Cantor shifted the Republican strategy on Sept. 12 from a plan to defund the health-care law to a move to delay its implementation being pushed by Graves and others.
Graves said one of the biggest differences between his legislation and the first spending proposal from leadership was procedural. The Republican leaders’ plan would have let Senate Democrats strip out a provision defunding the health-care law and pass the spending measure for Obama’s signature.
The Graves bill would require any Senate changes to be sent back to the House for passage, increasing the chances there would be no government funding by Sept. 30. Graves said today that his proposal has support from 59 co-sponsors, including 38 elected since 2010.
Massie -- who grew up in the Bluegrass State before heading to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he collected two engineering degrees -- called Boehner’s proposal “hocus pocus” and a “semantic trick.”
“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 would entertain other ways of achieving that,” said Massie, wearing a “Liberty” pin on his lapel, just under another of the U.S. flag. “There’s a lack of trust between the leadership and the conference on this issue.”