As the deadline to fund the federal government nears, Republican leaders are struggling mightily to come up with legislation that can pass the House. Over the weekend, leadership staffers fired off anxious e-mails and uneasy veteran House members exchanged calls. Both camps fear that a shutdown is increasingly likely — and they blame the conservative movement’s cottage industry of pressure groups.
But these organizations, ensconced in Northern Virginia office parks and elsewhere, aren’t worried about the establishment’s ire. In fact, they welcome it. Business has boomed since the push to defund Obamacare caught on. Conservative activists are lighting up social media, donations are pouring in, and e-mail lists are growing.
For the tea-party coalition and its leaders, it’s a triumphant return to power inside the Beltway after an election cycle where they were minor players and a year on Capitol Hill in which they’ve occasionally fumbled. Republican leadership, which initially shrugged off the defunding cry, now faces a flush and angry grassroots operation.
“Turn on any political news show, read any magazine, and all they’re talking about is how conservatives want to defund Obamacare,” says Sal Russo, an adviser to Tea Party Express. “The Tea Party has matured from a protest movement to a collection of organized groups that know how to roll up their sleeves and engage in the political process.”
The GOP’s loyalists are less pleased. “It’s Republicans attacking Republicans, and I don’t think it’s healthy for the party,” says Brian Walsh, a former official at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “These groups are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars against Republicans who simply disagree with their strategy.”
House leadership, too, is fretting — not only about finding 218 votes to fund the government, but about its grip on the House Republican conference. Groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, which once gave Speaker John Boehner mere headaches, now threaten his ability to shape policy.
Last week, pushback from conservative groups helped to topple the House leadership’s attempt to pass a continuing resolution that would have forced on the Senate a symbolic vote to defund Obamacare. This week, more than a dozen House Republicans, egged on by conservative activists, have said they won’t budge. Wednesday’s closed-door conference meeting is expected to be tumultuous.
It’s the appeal of a righteous battle over Obamacare, however messy it may be, that’s driving the fervor. The Senate Conservatives Fund, one of the groups coordinating the effort, has collected over 1.3 million signatures for its online petition insisting on defunding. “It has been a massive uprising,” says Matt Hoskins, the group’s adviser. “We’ve done a lot of petition drives over the years, but nothing has ever gotten as much traction.”
Heritage Action, an offshoot of the Heritage Foundation, launched a nine-city national tour over the summer to showcase the issue, featuring Heritage’s president, former senator Jim DeMint, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, among other conservative stars. It drew huge crowds and inspired backers across the country to ask their representatives about where they stood. “A lot of members were put in a corner,” says a House Republican insider. “They were caught by surprise.”
At the time, in early August, Boehner and Cantor tried to stop the defunding proposal before it became a national conservative cause. Their advisers met frequently with House conservatives and urged them to use the debt limit, rather than the CR, as the battleground. Cantor even attended the Weyrich lunch, a tight-knit gathering of conservative-movement leaders, to make the case. But he was politely rebuffed.
Speaking last week, Boehner sounded defeated by the ascent of the Right’s defund lobby. “Do you have an idea?” he asked reporters, when asked about how he was planning to avoid a shutdown. He then cracked a half-smile. “They,” he said, referencing his conservative critics, “will just shoot it down anyway.”
“We encouraged the leadership to join the effort as conservatives were beginning to rally around defunding,” says Dan Holler, a Heritage Action spokesman. “Weeks later, as the leadership tried to quash the defund strategy, momentum was already building, especially outside of Washington. Then, over August, Republican lawmakers heard directly from constituents, and without leadership aides there to rein them in, they signed on.”
Brent Bozell, a longtime conservative player who runs ForAmerica, a group that has organized rallies to defund Obamacare, says his organization has applied similar pressure. “We’ve made over 50,000 phone calls to congressional offices, and the enthusiasm among the grassroots is off the charts,” he says. “They’re sick of the leadership; they can tell the leadership doesn’t want to fight this fight.”
That frustration is driving the conservative conversation. Bozell, DeMint, and their allies may not have a clear path toward legislative victory, but they’ve found their footing. Activists are engaged, small-dollar donors are giving cash, and the leadership is nervous. Regardless of how the rest unfolds, they’ve already won.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.