Anti-Obamacare Lawmakers Urged to Hold Firm by Tea PartyToluse Olorunnipa and Greg Giroux
The stalemate over federal government funding that consumes Washington is little more than an afterthought in Louisiana’s 4th Congressional District.
Its two military installations are operating at full capacity, and such social services as food stamps and free preschool are still flowing to its poorest residents.
U.S. Representative John Fleming, the district’s congressman, is among the House Republicans pushing to change the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, as a condition to reopening the government -- a standoff with President Barack Obama that caused the shutdown. The focus these Republicans have on dismantling the health-care law has been fueled by Tea Party activists, and Fleming’s district embodies that movement’s small-government, anti-Obamacare views, reinforcing his position.
“They don’t seem to be that riled about the shutdown, to be honest with you,” Fleming said of his constituents in an interview in the U.S. Capitol. Voters sent him to Congress, he added, to “annihilate Obamacare.”
Obama yesterday accused the Tea Party wing of the Republican congressional caucus of concentrating so much on thwarting the health-care law that it’s willing to take the country to the financial brink, prompting the partial government shutdown and resisting an increase in the nation’s debt limit that administration officials say is needed by Oct. 17 to avoid a default.
Treasury one-month bill rates yesterday were at their highest since October 2008 and Internet stocks marked their biggest losses in two years. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 1.2 percent, its steepest drop since August and its lowest close in a month.
“A big chunk of the Republican Party right now are in gerrymandered districts where there’s no competition, and those folks are much more worried about a Tea Party challenger” in a primary “than they are about a general election where they’ve got to compete against a Democrat or go after independent votes,” Obama said. “And in that environment, it’s a lot harder for them to compromise.”
The messages to Tea Party-backed House members -- from states including Louisiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania -- run counter to the notion of negotiations. These lawmakers are being cheered for holding ground, a dynamic that makes resolving the showdown a major political challenge for House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
A poll released Oct. 7 by the Washington Post and ABC News found that 71 percent of voters disapproved of how congressional Republicans have handled the budget negotiations. That compared to disapproval ratings of 61 percent for Democrats in Congress and 51 percent for Obama.
Yet, a survey released Oct.7 by the Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of Tea Party Republicans expressed little or no concern about the effect of the government shutdown. By contrast, 10 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans responded the same way.
“We feel as if he has absolutely gone in the right direction,” North Carolina Tea Party activist Jane Bilello said in an Oct. 1 interview of Representative Mark Meadows, one of her state’s Republican House members backing the strategy of using the budget fight to try to derail Obamacare.
Meadows e-mailed “us and a bunch of grassroots groups” as the shutdown began, Biello said, “and everyone of us e-mailed back and said you have done the right thing, stay the course.”
Patti Weaver, a Pennsylvania Tea Party activist who supported Republican Keith Rothfus when he won his House seat in the state in 2012, said in an Oct. 1 interview that “the most important thing is to protect the American economy from Obamacare. The long-term health of the economy is far more important than a shutdown.”
Fleming’s constituents express similar views.
Brad Bradley, a retiree walking through downtown Shreveport on Oct. 7, criticized Obama for using the government shutdown to “screw with us.” He encouraged Republicans in Congress to keep fighting rather than negotiate to open the government, which he said he hasn’t missed.
“Either they’re going to do that or we’re going to give our country away,” he said. “I don’t want socialism here.”
Fleming faced no Democratic opponent in 2012 and garnered won 75 percent of the vote in winning a third term against a Libertarian challenger. Obama lost the district by 19 percentage points in both 2008 and 2012.
Oversized, winning margins were also recorded by many other Republicans in House districts where friendly-state legislatures maintained or strengthened favorable partisan boundaries after the 2010 census. The core of the Tea Party-backed House members won their 2012 elections with an average of 65 percent.
Obama alluded to those uncompetitive wins yesterday, and how they make it more difficult to reach bipartisan agreements.
“I recognize that there are some House members, Republican House members,” from districts “where I got clobbered in the last election,” he said. “And, you know, they don’t get politically rewarded a lot for being seen as negotiating with me. And that makes it harder for divided government to come together.”
During an electronic town hall last week with “tens of thousands” of participants, Fleming said he couldn’t keep them on the topic of the shutdown. “All they wanted to do is talk about the problems and the failures of Obamacare,” he said.
‘Life Goes On’
“For most Americans, and certainly in my district, life goes on every day regardless of the so-called shutdown which we know is only 17 percent of the government that is actually shut down,” he said. “The vast majority of Americans are not directly affected. That doesn’t mean we should do it and I want to end it as soon as possible.”
Although a small national park is closed in Fleming’s district, civilian federal workers are scarce in this swath of northwest Louisiana. More than 755,600 people live in the district; in all of Louisiana, there are just slightly more than 21,000 non-military federal employees, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
“I don’t think it’s had an effect on me,” Sam Scott, a 66-year-old landscaper in Shreveport, said of the shutdown. “I don’t work for the government.”
A debt default or a prolonged shutdown could change the political landscape, said Mike Collier, who chairs the Republican Party in Bossier Parish, Louisiana.
Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services said it will continue to fund social programs through October, without elaborating on what would happen after that. Welfare, food stamps and programs for low-income children could be affected by a lengthy shutdown. In addition, Louisiana receives nearly half of its annual budget from the federal government, second only to Mississippi, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based research group.
“We’ve been kind of blessed I suppose,” Collier said. “We’re different from some of the other places that are getting the hell kicked out of them right now.”
Collier said a debt default would also carry risks for Fleming, even in a district where Tea Party activists expect him to fight for budget cuts.
“This thing next week is loaded up and that’s a dangerous set of circumstances,” he said of the debt-ceiling debate. “It sure would get people’s attention if the markets declined.”
For now, though, even voters who don’t support the shutdown said they’re hardly fazed by it.
James Evans, a 33-year-old manager at Ivan Smith Furniture Store in Fleming’s hometown of Minden, Louisiana, said he’s seen no effect on sales. “I’m so far out of the loop,” he said. “I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary here.”