WASHINGTON – Both of Western New York’s Republican congressmen find themselves backpedaling furiously from the tea party strategy they supported that led the nation to a 16-day government shutdown as well as the brink of default.
Both Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence and Rep. Tom Reed of Corning said in response to questioning that it was a mistake for House Republicans to tie the funding of government to defunding of Obamacare – a strategy that they and the GOP leadership had agreed to under pressure from tea party forces.
Collins, in an interview, blamed the failed strategy on Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who goaded several dozen ultra-conservative lawmakers in the House to pursue the shutdown strategy.
“I think Sen. Cruz has done a disservice to the Republican Party,” Collins said. “He is an extremist, and he’s the one that had the rallying cry of repeal Obamacare, defund Obamacare, delay Obamacare.”
Reed, on a conference call with reporters on Thursday, dodged a question about who was responsible for the House strategy – which could have succeeded only if President Obama and the Democratic Senate agreed to gut the health care law, Obama’s signature accomplishment. “It was a poor strategy,” Reed acknowledged.
That’s become conventional wisdom in the nation’s capital, given the shape of the final bill that ended the shutdown and averted the default. That bill funds the government at current levels through Jan. 15 and extends the debt ceiling until Feb. 7 while creating a House-Senate conference committee to resolve longer-term budget issues.
The bill meets none of the demands House Republicans spelled out as the debate evolved. It doesn’t defund or delay Obamacare. It doesn’t even end the health insurance subsidies that lawmakers and their staffs get under Obamacare – which Reed decried as “special treatment.”
Despite those facts, every House Republican from New York except Collins and Reed voted for the bill.
The local congressmen likened the bipartisan agreement to “kicking the can down the road,” and said they could not support it because it does not include long-term budget reforms.
Still, both of them sharply criticized the strategy that started the shutdown in the first place. “Shutting down the government over Obamacare was obviously a mistake,” Collins said. Without the shutdown, “we would have been talking about the failure of Obamacare in starting up on Oct. 1, proving the point it was not ready for prime time. Instead, the shutdown overwhelmed.”
As early as mid-September, Collins voiced concern about tying the defunding of Obamacare to the must-pass continuing resolution to fund the government in the new fiscal year that started Oct. 1. Instead, he said at the time, the House would be better off focusing its energies on the Oct. 17 expiration of the debt ceiling.
Nevertheless, Collins voted for the GOP legislation that tied the funding of government to the defunding of Obamacare, and a follow-up bill to delay the health reforms for a year.
Asked why, Collins said: “Because ultimately that was the bill that was put forward to vote on. And you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good …. There will be things you don’t like but in this case it was a bill to keep the government open. We needed to keep the government open. There was not another bill.”
Collins blamed that fact on Cruz and his acolytes, who pushed the shutdown showdown over the objections of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House GOP leaders.
“I think Ted Cruz and that extremist group, which is focused on something that can’t be done as long as this president is in office, has distracted us from moving forward and working on deficit, entitlements, tax reform and immigration reform,” Collins said.
While a very small handful of Republicans such as Rep. Pete King, R-Seaford, have been saying such things for weeks, Collins’ comments on Cruz also echo those of frustrated Democrats such as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
“This is not an indictment of all congressional Republicans,” Higgins said. “The vast majority have been reasonable and have tried to avert this situation. But there is a radical fringe in the conference that is disproportionately influencing this process. And it’s got to stop.”
Reed agreed that the shutdown strategy didn’t work.
“I think the initial strategy of defunding Obamacare that started us down this path, to me, was something that clearly was unachievable, and you’ve seen some folks recognize that,” Reed said. “I question the strategy that was deployed because you’re essentially telling the people that you’re going to do something that you know you cannot do, given the facts at hand.”
Asked why he voted for it in the beginning, Reed said: “I did not agree with that strategy.”
He noted that soon after the shutdown began, he suggested a compromise to end it: a short-term spending bill that, instead of defunding or delaying Obamacare, instead just ended the provision giving lawmakers and their staffers health insurance subsidies under the law.
Martha Robertson, the Democratic chairman of the Tompkins County Legislature who is challenging Reed in the 2014 election, doesn’t think much of Reed’s efforts.
“Although Congressman Reed tries to pose as a moderate while in New York, his actions tell a different story,” she said. “His obstructionism in the face of this crisis is reckless and irresponsible, and shows his willingness to put the extreme ideology of the tea party ahead of the U.S. economy and his constituents.”
Reed, who attended tea party rallies during his first race for Congress in 2010, steered clear of the tea party label on Wednesday. Instead he stressed that he’s now part of “No Labels,” a bipartisan coalition aimed at problem-solving rather than opponent-bashing.
Yet unlike Collins, Reed refused to blame Cruz and his followers for the shutdown crisis.
“As to who’s responsible for it, I’ll let the political experts be the deciders of that,” Reed said. “But ultimately, let the people be the deciders of how this all went down.”
Reed surely wants to help the people decide. Shortly after the end of his call with reporters, Reed’s campaign sent out a letter to his supporters.
“Our nation faces monumental challenges, and we cannot continue kicking the can down the road,” Reed wrote. “With the next crisis looming in just three months, I am working tirelessly to craft long-term solutions to our challenges, but I need your help. Will you please donate $25, $100 or $250 to my campaign today so we can end the uncontrolled spending in Washington?”