By Ken Thomas
WASHINGTON — A group of House Republicans planning Senate campaigns next year took different bets on a bill in Congress ending a government shutdown and avoiding a default. For some, a general election loomed large while for others, the vote was a matter of competing for conservative primary voters.
The high-profile vote Wednesday night to end the 16-day partial government shutdown and stave off a national default divided Republicans in the House and Senate and could turn into a noteworthy issue in next year’s midterm elections.
In the Senate, Republicans need to pick up six seats to recapture the majority during President Barack Obama’s final two years. Republican outside groups paid close attention to the vote, with organizations like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action urging lawmakers to vote against the measure, while business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it was necessary to avoid an economic calamity.
For House Republicans with Senate ambitions, the vote offered a window into their political standing. By voting for the bill, Republicans were insulated to a certain degree against Democrats’ accusations that they would have allowed the government to default. By opposing it, they sided with conservatives who despise Obama’s health care law and spending record.
Four lawmakers who may seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 — Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — voted against the bill.
In the House, Reps. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Steve Daines of Montana supported the bill. All three are well-positioned to win the Republican nomination for Senate seats currently controlled by Democrats.
Cotton is challenging vulnerable Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., the son of the state’s former senator and governor. Cotton said supporting the bill gave Congress time to “stop Washington’s out-of-control spending,” but his vote put him at odds with the Club for Growth. The group has supported Cotton and been airing ads in Arkansas criticizing Pryor’s connection to Obama’s health care law.
Barney Keller, a club spokesman, said the group strongly supported Cotton, but “we simply disagree with him on this vote.”
Capito said the government needed to be reopened, and it was “clearly not in our country’s best interests to default on our debts.” Daines cited frustration that the measure was temporary and Congress could face another debt crisis in months.
The vote could affect at least two Republican incumbents in the Senate.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., helped negotiate the deal with Democratic leaders and his role quickly drew opposition from tea party-backed primary challenger Matt Bevin, who said McConnell had sold out conservatives. Democrats are waiting in the wings with Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, hoping a difficult primary could weaken the powerful GOP leader in the general election.
In Mississippi, the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which have played formidable roles in Republican primaries, endorsed Chris McDaniel, a state senator who announced his campaign Thursday to unseat GOP Sen. Thad Cochran. Cochran, who voted for the bill, has not said whether he’ll seek re-election next year.
“The lamps of liberty are going out across the Republic. Millions of people feel like strangers in the land,” McDaniel said Thursday in Ellisville, Miss.
For House Republicans facing crowded Senate fields, the calculation was different. With many conservatives furious with the nation’s new health insurance program, siding with Obama and establishment Republicans could hurt them in primaries fueled by tea party activists. Many lawmakers still remember the fate of former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who supported the $700 billion bailout of the financial industry in 2008 and later lost the Republican nomination to now Sen. Mike Lee.
In Louisiana, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy opposed the bill, potentially helping his cause in a primary field in which some have questioned his conservative bona fides. The winner will face Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
In Georgia, where GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring, three House Republicans — Reps. Jack Kingston, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey — voted against the bill. The congressional trio joins former secretary of state Karen Handel and businessman David Perdue in a crowded primary field. Democrats have recruited Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn.
Yes vote or not, Democrats intend to make the shutdown a major theme against Republicans next year.
“They could have voted for a nearly identical deal weeks ago and spared their constituents a lot pain, but they put their own politics ahead of what’s best for their state,” said Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.