The federal government had already shut down when Democrats appeared before the television cameras to showcase a poster-sized quote from Republican Rep. Marlin Stutzman, one of the dozens of conservatives opposed to any government funding bill that didn't delay or derail Obamacare.
"We have got to get something out of this," read Stutzman's words, in can't-miss yellow type on a blue placard. "And I don't know what that even is."Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his top lieutenants chuckled derisively at Stutzman's suggestion that Republicans didn't even know what they're fighting for. Reporters joined in the hearty laughter, and the Democrats' mission was accomplished: As far as everyone in the room was concerned, the Tea Party Republicans were nuts.
The band of uncompromising conservatives in the House and Senate, many of whom arrived over the last three years with heavy Tea Party support, has been called worse, even by other Republicans. They've been labeled anarchists, wacko birds and the “suicide caucus” of GOP lawmakers who, according to one liberal blogger, represented only "small slivers of white, less-educated conservatives who voted heavily for Mitt Romney."
But whatever the criticism, these relatively young lawmakers have pushed the conservative agenda on spending and Obamacare farther in the past few weeks than the longest-serving Republican leaders have in years.
The group's efforts have strengthened the GOP's hand in upcoming negotiations over a much bigger legislative deal -- a combined plan to both fund the government in 2014 and raise the nation's $16.7 trillion borrowing limit. Conservatives suddenly stand to make significant gains in such a deal, from delaying the health care law to entitlement and spending reforms.
"All I can tell you," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., "is our constituents are in with us really strongly. They are saying, 'Finally you guys are doing what we asked you to do, not to stand down, not to ball up in a corner, not to roll over, not to raise the white flag, to actually fight for our values and to ultimately make sure our economy is unleashed.'"
Democrats are calling the partial closing of the federal government the "Tea Party shutdown." But is it really? Who is the "gang" of unyielding conservatives who have been the target of so much blame and scorn?
"I would just say it's been mischaracterized all along," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a House freshman and former small-business owner whose North Carolina district, once held by Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler, is 91 percent white and includes some of the state's most conservative communities.
"There are a lot of guys here who have nothing to do with the Tea Party that are supporting this effort because people back home are asking them to do that," Meadows told the Washington Examiner.
Democrats and many Republicans see Meadows as a primary architect of the GOP's fight against any government spending bill that funds Obamacare.
It was Meadows who in August circulated a letter to fellow Republicans asking them to join him in demanding that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., "affirmatively defund" the health care law in any spending measure, even a short-term, temporary bill aimed at preventing a government shutdown.
Eighty House Republicans signed on, forming the core of the group that influenced Boehner and his leadership team to dig in and insist that the health care law be limited or delayed in the budget bill. To pressure their leaders, the group simply refused to support any spending bill that didn't limit Obamacare in some way.
The group has also been influenced heavily by Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, who are leading the opposition to Obamacare in the Senate and who have pressured conservative House GOP members to stand firm.
"Really, when you look at it, this has grown organically because we are on the side of the people," Meadows said. "Arguing their point is always a safe position to argue from."
Signers of the Meadows letter are not all typical Tea Party lawmakers.
Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., has been serving in Congress since 2003, long before the Tea Party existed. Gingrey is a physician and a conservative deeply opposed to the health care law because he believes it will kill jobs and limit patient access to decent medical care.
Reps. Ralph Hall of Texas, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Jack Kingston of Georgia and Steve King of Iowa are also longtime GOP members who predate the Tea Party.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., also arrived in Congress in 2003, well before the Tea Party's 2010 launch, though he enthusiastically identifies with the group's philosophy.
"I will tell you that my position is that funding bills should include as little money for Obamacare as possible," Franks told the Examiner.
"This is a spending bill, and we have every responsibility to make sure the money that is spent in it is doing something that is good for America and is not diminishing our country, and that is what some of us are trying to do."
Franks' office was flooded with calls about whether he should give up his fight against the health care law and simply vote for a government funding bill that includes Obamacare.
"I get two kinds of responses," said Franks, whose district is 74 percent white. "'No' and 'hell no.'"
None of the House lawmakers opposing the health care law represent mostly black or mostly Hispanic districts, but that does not mean minorities are wholly opposed to their efforts, according to Fleming.
"My district is 33 percent African-American, and my district is strongly in support of what we are doing," said Fleming, whose recent town hall meeting in his Louisiana district drew a nearly all-black audience.
"I was shocked at how anti-Obamacare they were," Fleming said. The claim that opponents to the law are all white, he added, "is more perception than truth."
|"Our constituents are in with us really strongly. They are saying, 'Finally you guys are doing what we asked you to do, not to stand down, not to ball up in a corner, not to roll over, not to raise the white flag, to actually fight for our values.'"|
"They don't want a huge government hanging over the economy like a dead beast," he said.
It's still unclear whether the band of conservative lawmakers will accomplish their goal of delaying or derailing Obamacare.
Many of their fellow Republicans say the goal isn't even achievable. But King, who has been trying to defund the law since 2011, believes the outcome will depend on a public that, polls show, largely opposes the new health care law.
"The American people are going to decided this," King told the Examiner. "The court of public opinion is going to weigh in, and as it weighs in, it will bring pressure to break the deadlock."
King suggests the outcome could mimic the government shutdown of 1995-96, which damaged Republicans politically but ultimately helped achieve some of the party's most important goals because Democrats became more willing to compromise.
"They balanced the budget, they got welfare reform, they did some solid things," King said. "The Republicans won on the policy and lost on the message. I'll take that."