WASHINGTON -- In the fight over the government shutdown, two North Carolina members of Congress have found themselves caught in the middle.
N.C. Reps. Robert Pittenger and Renee Ellmers predicted the current political and fiscal mess, tried to tell their constituencies that defunding the health care law by halting government operations was a bad idea — but then voted for the shutdown anyway under intense pressure by conservative groups.
More than two weeks into the shutdown, nowhere is the growing divide between House and Senate Republicans over strategy more pronounced than in the Carolinas, where diverse viewpoints and redistricting have intensified competing pressures on lawmakers.
It was N.C. Reps. Mark Meadows and Richard Hudson who rallied GOP conservatives to tie defunding of the health care law to funding the government. Yet their GOP Senate colleagues, including N.C. Sen. Richard Burr and S.C. Sen. Lindsey Graham, 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 the (October) 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 the GOP members of the Carolina delegation underscores tensions over the direction of the party and the challenges members face in states like North Carolina where disparate ideologies have become more concentrated via redistricting.
Both 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. Pittenger’s 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.
After the initial vote that led to the shutdown, the Republican-led House introduced and passed several bills that would re-open 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 act.
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 both 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. He joined a bipartisan group of freshmen that identified themselves as something of an antidote to the previous class of 2010, known for an influx of combative tea partiers.
But he quickly learned how difficult that challenge was. During a town hall meeting at Queens University in Charlotte during the August recess, he sought to warn the public of the risks of trying to defund Obamacare by tying it to a spending bill. He said he’d 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 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 Women’s Policy Committee. She is often called on as a spokeswoman for the Republican party.
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 a challenger in the May Republican primary election. 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 would also suspend a tax on medical devices and eliminate the federal contributions to lawmakers’ health insurance plans.
Ellmers walked out of the meeting disappointed because she felt the House leadership had bent too much to the Senate’s will. She said she was unsure whether she could support the House plan as it was being discussed Tuesday morning by leaders.
“I’m not satisfied. I don’t think we’re asking enough. I think because we’re up against the debt ceiling and the default that we’re trying to put forward something that we believe the Senate will agree to, but I believe it’s compromising on my principles.”
Pittenger has flipped 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.
He cited the YouTube video as evidence of his original position. He said the real problem is spending. He opposed raising the debt ceiling, but said he could only accept such a measure if it accompanied equivalent spending cuts.
Pittenger said he knew that Democratic leaders in the Senate and the White House would never accept a measure for 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.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “I would think that reasonable, thoughtful minds would have prevailed by now.”