Shutdown Shows Republican Party More Splintered Than Ever

Robert Siegel speaks with author Sam Tanenhaus of The New York Times about the status and state of the GOP after the government shutdown, debt ceiling battle and fiscal crisis.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Government employees are back at work today, and the imminent risk of a default is gone. It's as if the last month of high-stakes political drama never happened, but it did. And we begin this hour with NPR's Tamara Keith, who's followed every twist and turn.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It's Aug. 19th, and Michael Needham is rallying Obamacare opponents gathered in a big, red barn in Fayetteville, Ark.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL NEEDHAM: Right now, they are saying there is no way we can defund Obamacare. Friends, yes we can.

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: Needham is president of the conservative activist group Heritage Action. And this was the first stop in a nine-city tour aimed at building popular momentum behind the idea of blocking a government spending bill until Democrats agreed to defund the health care law.

NEEDHAM: Will we defund Obamacare this September?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes.

KEITH: As Congress returned from the August recess, that strategy began to play out. It wasn't the fight he would have picked but Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans, on Sept. 20th, passed a bill that set the shutdown in motion. They even held a rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Our message to the United States Senate is real simple. The American people don't want the government shut down, and they don't want Obamacare.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yeah.

KEITH: This often fractious caucus had almost unanimously supported a measure to temporarily fund the government and permanently defund the health care law. The bill's fate in the Senate was already sealed. Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz became the public face of the defund strategy. He said he would do everything in his power to keep it alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEN. TED CRUZ: I intend to speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand.

KEITH: And speak he did, for more than 21 hours, at one point reading his daughters a bedtime story from the Senate floor.

CRUZ: Do you like green eggs and ham? I do not like them, Sam-I-Am. I do not like green eggs and ham.

KEITH: After the talking was done, Senate Democrats easily stripped out the Obamacare language and sent a clean spending bill back to the House. And thus began a game of political ping pong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The yeas are 231, the nays are 191. The resolution is adopted.

KEITH: The House tried again. Instead of defunding Obamacare, delay it by a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The motion to table the House amendments to the Senate amendment to the House joint resolution 59 prevails.

KEITH: The Senate said no.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: House Resolution 367...

KEITH: On its final volley, the House asked for a one-year delay of the health care law's individual mandate.

SEN. HARRY REID: I move to table the House amendment and ask for the yeas and nays on my motion.

KEITH: Again, the Senate said no.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SHAY STEVENS: The deadline for a stop-gap budget has passed without a deal, and as many as a million federal workers are facing furloughs.

KEITH: Finally, with time expired, in the early morning hours on Oct. 1, House Republicans asked for a conference committee, and a new Twitter hashtag was born: #LetsTalk. A pattern developed in the Capitol. There would be a press conference where House Republicans would beg the president and Democrats to negotiate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOEHNER: We've asked to go to conference, to sit down and try to resolve our differences. They don't want to - they will not negotiate.

KEITH: And with each passing day, new stories emerged of those hurt by the shutdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING, CLAPPING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Thank you for your service...

KEITH: World War II veterans visiting Washington pushed past barricades to get to the war memorial on the National Mall.

REP. RANDY NEUGEBAUER: How do you - deny them access? I don't get that.

UNIDENTIFIED PARK SERVICE EMPLOYEE: It's difficult.

KEITH: Texas Republican Congressman Randy Neugebauer was caught on camera scolding a park service employee.

NEUGEBAUER: The park service should be ashamed of themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED PARK SERVICE EMPLOYEE: I'm not ashamed.

KEITH: Next, it was cancer trials, baby formula for poor children, military death benefits. And so, each day, the House would pass more in a series of piecemeal bills to fund small bits of the government.

REP. ROB WOODALL: ...joint resolution making continuing appropriations for the National Institutes of Health...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Local funds of the District of Columbia for fiscal year...

WOODALL: ...for National Park Service operations, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art...

KEITH: Democrats and the president, still unwilling to negotiate, made the case that the suffering could all end with a single vote to reopen the government, no Obamacare strings attached.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Speaker Boehner keeps on saying he doesn't have the votes for it. And what I've said is, put it on the floor, see what happens. And at minimum, let every member of Congress be on record.

KEITH: But House Republicans, including Indiana's Marlin Stutzman, said such unconditional surrender wasn't an option.

REP. MARLIN STUTZMAN: We're not going to be disrespected. And so that's where we're at today, where we have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is.

KEITH: The next day, he walked back those comments. The battle wasn't going well for Republicans. Although polls showed everyone in Washington taking a hit in popularity, congressional Republicans were sinking - and fast. One poll even showed the health care law getting more popular as the shutdown dragged on. In the Senate, Chaplain Barry Black offered his daily scolding from the dais.

THE REV. BARRY BLACK: Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable...

KEITH: Then, almost two weeks in, a breakthrough in the Senate. After a bipartisan group led by six women senators got the conversation going, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he and Majority Leader Harry Reid were talking about a way out, both from the government shutdown and a fast approaching debt ceiling deadline.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: We've had an opportunity over the last couple of days to have some very constructive exchanges of views about how to move forward.

KEITH: Then, just as a deal seemed close, House Speaker John Boehner decided to make one last go of it with a bill ending the crisis but also taking a bite out of the health care law. But there was a problem. He couldn't get enough of his Republicans onboard.

BOEHNER: There are a lot of opinions about what direction to go. There have been no decisions about what exactly we will do.

KEITH: As day turned to night, he gave up trying. From there, it all happened very fast. And a little afternoon yesterday, Reid announced there was a deal.

REID: It's never easy for two sides to reach consensus. It's really hard, sometimes harder than others. This time was really hard.

KEITH: It reopens the government and raises the debt limit until early next year and starts broader budget negotiations. As for the health care law, it makes the Obama administration certify it's doing something it's already doing. A few minutes before meeting with House Republicans, Boehner called in to WLW radio in Cincinnati.

(SOUNDBITE OF WLW RADIO SHOW)

BOEHNER: We fought the good fight. We just didn't win.

KEITH: It was over with a whimper. Both houses of Congress passed it overwhelmingly. And a little after midnight, President Obama signed it into law. The barriers came down from national monuments and the panda-cam at the National Zoo was switched back on. Standard & Poor's estimates the shutdown cost the U.S. economy $24 billion. But the health care law, with its deeply flawed roll out, remains intact.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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