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POLITICS: PennAve

Candidates in high-stakes races take sides in high-stress budget vote

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Congress,Obamacare,Marco Rubio,Paul Ryan,Republican Party,Tea Party,Debt Ceiling,2014 Elections,2016 Elections,Rand Paul,Ted Cruz,PennAve,Rebecca Berg,John Cornyn,Tom Cotton,Liz Cheney,Mike Enzi,Mark Pryor,Government Shutdown

During votes Wednesday night on whether to reopen the federal government and raise the debt ceiling, a host of lawmakers facing competitive political contests in 2014 made decisions they will likely have to answer for throughout the campaign season.

Republicans, many of whom felt pressure from conservative supporters and groups to oppose the deal, faced the toughest political choices.

In some votes cast, the fear of a Republican primary challenger was palpable.

Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., were among 16 Republicans who voted to block a vote on the final compromise just hours before the Treasury Department said the government would default on its debt. Cornyn has been targeted by some conservative groups, raising the possibility that he might attract a Tea Party challenger. Enzi already faces a Republican primary challenger, Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president.

Similar political incentives drove the Senate's three potential 2016 presidential contenders — Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Ted Cruz, R-Texas; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — to oppose the deal as well. In the House, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., broke with House Republican leaders to vote against the compromise as well.

Votes on the House side were less predictable, and two Republicans who are now challenging incumbent Democratic senators charted different paths.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., will face Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., next fall, though his fundraising and buzz about his candidacy have been tapering off. He decided to oppose the compromise.

"This deal does not end special Obamacare breaks for senators or members of Congress, nor does it address the long-term threats to our debt and deficit,” Cassidy said.

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and spent much of the latest government shutdown huddled in Capitol hallways with some of the House's most conservative members. He ended up reluctantly supporting the compromise.

"This bill is far from perfect, but it preserves annual spending caps and allows for more negotiation to stop Washington's out-of-control spending," Cotton said.

Pryor's campaign was using the shutdown to attack Cotton, dubbing the congressional impasse "Tom Cotton's shutdown."

The approval of a deal late Wednesday might have been politically tricky for some Republicans — but not for those lawmakers running in competitive Republican primary races, where voter turnout often skews more conservative.

All three Republican members of Congress seeking their party's nomination for Georgia's open Senate seat voted against the Senate deal. The two lawmakers considered most conservative, Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, have been leading the pack in early polling.

The third lawmaker, Rep. Jack Kingston, said in an MSNBC interview Wednesday that the budget fight resulting in a government shutdown "was important to us to re-establish our brand as being against Obamacare."

"Congressman, do you think anyone going into this was confused about the Republican stance on Obamacare?" host Chris Hayes asked.

"You know, you would be surprised," Kingston laughed. "I’m telling you, sometimes our base thinks that we haven’t driven the point enough. Even though we’ve had something like 40 different votes to defund it, in one form or the other, we still get complaints that we’re not doing anything to defund Obamacare."

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Rebecca Berg

Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner