In the final minutes before the vote early Monday evening, Rep. Pete King stood at the back rail on the floor of the House, watching the scoreboard and still hoping there was a chance to stop the madness.
But every time he spoke to a fellow Republican representative who seemed ready to join him in averting a government shutdown, House Speaker John Boehner would have a quiet word with the waverer.
“I did my bit, and then I saw Boehner talking to them,” King says.
King was by one of the 20 locations where a member can vote. He saw a possible supporter who was standing nearby instead go to a more distant voting station.
“When you see a guy walk away to vote someplace else, you know how he’s going,” King says.
King felt sure that if Boehner had just told everybody to vote their conscience, then the measure that threatened to trigger a government shutdown would have been resoundingly defeated. But Boehner apparently did not want to risk a revolt by the extremists who are ideologically aligned with Sen. Ted Cruz, the ones who King says live in “echo chambers” where they hear only their own voices. Boehner would rather risk this challenge by King, who was not an imminent threat to the speaker’s rule and had been consistently loyal in all the big recent votes.
At the same time, the “Ted Cruz Republicans,” as King called them, had been consistently disloyal. The present crisis had only come about because the Cruz crazies had refused to go along with Boehner’s original plan. Boehner had figured on sending legislation to the Senate that would allow it to fund the government even as it refused to pass an essentially symbolic measure defunding Obamacare.
“It’s bad for the Congress. It’s bad for the government, bad for the country.”
Just two weeks ago, Boehner and House Majority leader Eric Cantor had spoken eloquently against triggering a government shutdown. The whole idea had been for the Republicans to make a statement without hurting anybody. That was not good enough for the Cruz wing, which was bent on undoing a law that had been passed by Congress, signed by the president, upheld by the Supreme Court, and essentially reaffirmed by the electorate in a presidential election.
“It goes against the whole sprit of the Constitution,” King says of the effort to undo Obamacare.
King had been pretty eloquent himself as he pointed all of this out in a speech at a closed-door meeting of his fellow Republican members in room HC-5 in the basement of the Capitol on Monday afternoon. He reminded the gathering that he had voted again and again with leadership during Boehner's tenure. He also reminded them that the Cruz crazies heeded only themselves.
“I said, ‘That’s how we got here in the first place,’” King recalls.
He spoke passionately against the course the crazies had now set them on. “It’s going nowhere, there’s no endgame,” he recalls saying. “It’s bad for the Congress. It's bad for the government, bad for the country.”
For him, it was not a matter of politics, but of conscience. He could not facilitate what he had termed “government terrorism” on the part of the crazies.
“I can’t be party to this anymore,” he told the crowd in HC-5.
The previous half dozen speeches at the gathering had all been in support of the leadership’s position and had all been welcomed with resounding cheers. King’s passionate words from the heart were met with nothing at all.
“Absolute dead silence,” he says.
He wryly adds, “It could have been they were so moved by what I said, they were just incapable of responding, or it could have been they wanted to get rid of me.”
His only other significant break with his party had been back in 1998, when he was the sole Republican to vote against all the articles of impeachment brought against President Clinton. Anybody who remembered him from those days could not have been surprised as he now refused to be deterred by the silence. He set about seeking enough supporters among the moderates to defeat a procedural motion needed to perpetuate the legislative lunacy that could otherwise trigger a shutdown. He hoped he might have as many as 25 votes, and that would have done it.
But when the time came early Monday evening, he lost one possible vote after another. The bill had come to include a measure that would strip lawmakers and their staffs as well as the president of their health insurance and make them secure it through Obamacare. Republicans were reminded by the leadership as they entered the chamber that in their next primary they could face an opponent who portrayed a no vote on this bill not as an effort to avert a showdown but as a desire to preserve for themselves a perk denied average Americans. Boehner worked the floor, using a few quiet words to greater effect than old-fashioned muscling.
“Stick with him, he needs the party to stick together, he would make it work,” King says.
Boehner paused to speak to King himself.
“He said, ‘I understand your frustration, I understand where you're coming from,'” King recalls.
King still felt Boehner was essentially a decent guy.
“His father’s a bartender,” says King, a cop's son.
King also still felt that Boehner could have changed everything by simply telling them to vote as they felt they should, not to worry about being portrayed as a protector of perks and do their duty as protectors of the nation.
That was not going to happen. King retained some hope as he watched a half dozen waverers hanging back from voting. They were soon approached by emissaries of the leadership, Boehner’s crew having noted the incomplete tally and set out to find those who had not yet demonstrated their loyalty with a “yes.”
In the end, King was joined in voting “no” by only five Republicans, only one of these a moderate, Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. The other four were Tea Party types who think the Cruz crazies are not crazy enough.
“What can I tell you?” King says.