WASHINGTON — In the fight over the government shutdown, two North Carolina members of Congress have found themselves caught in the middle.
U.S. Reps. Renee Ellmers and Robert Pittenger, both Republicans, predicted the current political and fiscal mess and tried to tell their constituents that defunding the health care law by halting government operations was a bad idea. But then they voted for the shutdown anyway, facing intense pressure from conservative groups.
More than two weeks into the shutdown, few places exemplify the growing divide between House and Senate Republicans over strategy more than North Carolina, where diverse viewpoints and redistricting have intensified competing pressures on lawmakers.
U.S. Reps. Mark Meadows and Richard Hudson rallied GOP conservatives to tie defunding of the health care law, often called Obamacare, to funding the government. Yet their GOP Senate colleagues, including Richard Burr of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have been some of the strongest critics of the House strategy.
I would say to any member of Congress, What is your oath? What is your reason for being here? Graham said Tuesday morning. Are you going to stop our ability to reopen the government forever and to honor our obligations come (Oct.) 17th? I can understand fighting for your cause, but there comes a point where you have an obligation to the country as a whole.
The strain evident among Republicans underscores tensions over the direction of the party and the challenges lawmakers face in states such as North Carolina, where disparate ideologies have become more concentrated via redistricting.
Ellmers and Pittenger represent largely conservative districts. But each also has a strong urban contingent. Ellmers district represents much of southern and western Wake County, including parts of suburban Raleigh. Pittengers district encompasses swaths of Charlotte. Voters in rural areas are often at odds with their urban and suburban counterparts on national issues. Rural voters often take more conservative positions compared to urban voters.
Ellmers once reluctant
After the initial vote that led to the shutdown, the Republican-led House introduced and passed several bills that would reopen popular programs in the government. But Democrats in the Senate, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, refused to negotiate on any measure that delayed or defunded implementation of the health care law.
Like the House Republican leadership, Ellmers and Pittenger initially were reluctant to shut down the government as a strategy to block funding of the health care law, a decision that put both at odds with conservative groups.
They eventually voted for the budget plan that ultimately led to the shutdown.
When he got to Washington, Pittenger pledged to help reshape Washington into a more constructive place. But he quickly learned how difficult that challenge was.
During a town hall meeting at Queens University in Charlotte during the August recess, Pittenger sought to warn the public of the risks of trying to defund the health care act by tying it to a spending bill. He said hed vote against it, triggering an intense backlash.
Video of the exchange was posted online by a tea party group. Pittenger eventually voted for the measure.
Ellmers was part of the 2010 freshman class and a darling of the tea party. But after getting into office, she sought to shed those ties, working closely with House leadership and becoming chairwoman of the Republican Womens Policy Committee. She is often called on as a spokeswoman for congressional Republicans, appearing on cable news outlets defending the strategy she once loudly decried.
Ellmers has one of the most conservative voting records in the House, but when she said voting for a government shutdown would be trading one economic disaster for another, the D.C.-based conservative group Heritage Action announced it would spend $550,000 on online ads against her and other GOP opponents of the shutdown.
She has since picked up competition for the Republican primary in May with other challengers considering similar bids. Cary stock trader Frank Roche, her opponent, has called her a faux conservative.
On Tuesday, House leadership outlined a plan that would reopen the government and give the Treasury authority to borrow until early next year. It also would suspend a tax on medical devices, and eliminate federal contributions to lawmakers health insurance plans.
By the end of the day, however, the House proposal had collapsed likely because of waning support. Senate leaders have since taken back up negotiations.
Ellmers was one member who had concerns about the House plan.
She walked out of the Tuesday morning meeting disappointed because she felt the House leadership had bent too much to the Senates will. She said she was unsure whether she could support the House plan as it was being discussed Tuesday morning by leaders.
Im not satisfied. I dont think were asking enough, she said. I think because were up against the debt ceiling and the default, that were trying to put forward something that we believe the Senate will agree to, but I believe its compromising on my principles.
Pittenger has changed back and forth on the issue. Despite voting for the plan to defund Obamacare by tying it to the government funding, he said Monday night that he never wanted to defund the government.
Pittenger said he knew that Democratic leaders in the Senate and the White House would never accept a measure defunding Obamacare. Nonetheless, he blamed them for failing to come to the table when the House tried to negotiate reopening other parts of the government except Obamacare.
Its disappointing, he said. I would think that reasonable, thoughtful minds
would have prevailed by now.