GOP Shutdown Strategy Gives House A Twilight Zone Feel

Oct 9, 2013
Originally published on October 9, 2013 3:51 pm

With little progress being made to resolve the government shutdown, House Republicans have decided on a piecemeal strategy.

They have been voting to reopen small pieces of the government — for example, on Wednesday, they approved bills paying for the Federal Aviation Administration and for death benefits to the families of service members.

While the death benefits bill got unanimous support, most of these votes have split along party lines — and that has put politicians on both sides in some surprising positions.

At times, it feels like the Capitol has fallen into an alternate universe, where Democrats vote against some of their favorite programs, and Republicans cheer for fully funding parts of the government they have typically argued need a trim.

Take the program to provide food and baby formula to low-income women, infants and children, known as WIC.

Back in July, Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King called the U.S. a "cradle-to-grave welfare state," arguing on the House floor that programs like food stamps and WIC "bribe people to leave the workforce and go on the welfare rolls." Not exactly an endorsement.

But when it came time last Friday to vote to fully fund the WIC program through December, King joined 221 of his fellow Republicans and voted yes.

"I vote for it because I do believe in it," he said. "And I'd like to fix it some places, I'd like to amend it — we're not going to do it in this environment. That's why."

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Democrats voted against short-term funding for the WIC program.

White House spokesman Jay Carney says these bills are just gimmicks.

"The way to fix all these problems is not to notice one in the press and then fix it — a day, a week, two weeks or a month after people have been suffering the consequences of shutdown," he says. "The way to do it is to open the government."

The same thing happened Tuesday with a bill to fund Head Start preschools.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, spoke on the floor against the bill.

"It is another important federal program that Republicans are claiming to support today in full defiance of their previous voting record," she said.

The spending plan passed by House Republicans earlier this year calls for a nearly 20 percent cut to the part of the federal budget that includes Head Start. The Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers, rubbed in DeLauro's apparent role reversal.

"She turns around and tells us she's going to vote against funding for the Head Start program. That's a puzzle to me," Rogers said.

These are puzzling times, like something out of Alice in Wonderland or The Twilight Zone.

Republicans have often complained that federal workers are overpaid with benefits that are too generous. But they voted unanimously along with Democrats to give back pay to workers furloughed by the shutdown.

Now these votes have started showing up in political ads — including a Web ad out Wednesday from the National Republican Congressional Committee that targets vulnerable Democrats.

It's not clear whether this was the goal all along, or just an added benefit of a strategy that has the House members voting to fund programs essentially whenever they're asked about them.

Take Majority Leader Eric Cantor's exchange with a television reporter at a news conference last week about a bill to reopen national parks and monuments. When Cantor was asked why the Republicans were choosing monuments over a program like Head Start, he responded: "That is coming as well, OK? We are going to take every issue that is out there that we have agreement on and put it on the floor, and we will pass the funding bills to go to the Senate."

The next day, Cantor was at a news conference, surrounded by colleagues in lab coats, talking about funding for research at the National Institutes of Health. He promised more bills.

And they do keep coming, forcing often uncomfortable votes on both sides of the aisle.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. House Democrats met with President Obama this afternoon to discuss the ongoing government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling crisis. Meanwhile, House Republicans continued today to pursue a piecemeal strategy, voting to reopen small parts of the government. They approved bills paying for the FAA, as well as death benefits for the families of service members.

SIEGEL: While that death benefits bill got unanimous support, NPR's Tamara Keith reports that most of these votes have split along party lines, and that's put politicians on both sides in some surprising positions.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At times it feels like the Capitol has fallen into an alternate universe, a universe where Democrats vote against some of their favorite programs and Republicans cheer for fully funding parts of the government they've typically argued need a trim. Take the program to provide food and baby formula to low-income women, infants and children.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE KING: We are a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

KEITH: This is Iowa Republican Steve King in a speech on the House floor back in July.

KING: We have at least 80 different means-tested welfare programs in the United States and they range from the food stamp program to temporary assistance to needy families to the WIC program, and it goes on and on.

KEITH: He went on to say these programs, quote, "bribe people to leave the workforce and go on the welfare rolls." Not exactly an endorsement. But when it came time last Friday to vote to fully fund the WIC program through December, King joined 221 of his fellow Republicans and voted yes.

KING: I voted for it because I do believe in it. And I'd like to fix it some places, I'd like to amend it. And we're not going to do it in this environment. That's why.

KEITH: Meanwhile, the vast majority of Democrats voted against short-term funding for the WIC program. White House spokesman Jay Carney says these bills are just gimmicks.

JAY CARNEY: The way to fix all these problems is not to notice one in the press and then fix it, a day, a week, two weeks or a month after people have been suffering the consequences of shutdown. The way to do it is to open the government.

KEITH: Yesterday, the same thing happened with a bill to fund Head Start preschools. Rosa Delauro is a Connecticut Democrat who spoke on the floor against the bill.

REPRESENTATIVE ROSE DELAURO: It is another important federal program that Republicans are claiming to support today in full defiance of their previous voting record.

KEITH: The spending plan passed by House Republicans earlier this year calls for a nearly 20 percent cut to the part of the federal budget that includes Head Start. The Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers, rubbed in Delauro's apparent role reversal.

REPRESENTATIVE HAL ROGERS: And yet she turns around and tells us she's going to vote against funding for the Head Start program. That's a puzzle to me.

KEITH: These are puzzling times, like something out of "Alice in Wonderland" or "The Twilight Zone." Republicans have often complained federal workers are overpaid, with benefits too generous. But they voted unanimously, along with Democrats, to give back pay to workers furloughed by the shutdown. Now, these votes have started showing up in political ads, like this Web ad out today from the National Republican Congressional Committee. It targets vulnerable Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: But Tim Wall stood in the way, voting against veterans, against life-saving cancer research, against low-income families.

KEITH: It's not clear whether this was the goal all along or just an added benefit of the strategy that has the House voting to fund programs essentially whenever they're asked about. Take this exchange at a press conference last week where Majority Leader Eric Cantor talked about a bill to reopen national parks and monuments. The first voice you hear is a television reporter.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Why are you pushing for monuments to be open instead of, say, Head Start preschools for low-income children? Isn't it all important?

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: That is coming as well, okay. We are going to take every issue that is out there that we have agreement on and put it on the floor and we will pass the funding bills to go to the Senate.

KEITH: The next day, Cantor was at a press conference surrounded by colleagues in lab coats talking about funding for research at the National Institutes of Health. He promised more bills. And they do keep coming, forcing often uncomfortable votes on both sides of the aisle. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.